In the Oscar-buzzed film The Descendants, Alexander Payne turns his Sideways eye on Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel about family dysfunction in Hawaii. It's a lovely, heartfelt character study of common, everyday people trapped on the horns of an uncommon but not unheard-of dilemma.
George Clooney stars as Matt King, a lawyer and absentee dad living what "my friends on the mainland" assume is a "permanent vacation," a life in paradise. But he's quick to tell us (by voiceover narration), that they're not "immune to life," living in the land of the never-ending luau.
First, his wife is in a coma, so brain-injured in a boating accident that she's not likely to recover. Then there's his family's landed-gentry status, the thousands of acres of Hawaiian farmland that they own in a collective trust that his many relatives want him to, as trustee, sell for development.
But about that comatose wife: Matt has been "the backup parent" for years, "the understudy" in that family role. Now he has daughters to communicate with: Scottie (Amara Miller), 10, has to be told her mom is going to die, and rebellious boarding-school brat Alex (Shailene Woodley) has to be fetched, brought home and persuaded to behave herself as Dad breaks it to friends and relatives that his life-of-the-party spouse isn't going to make it.
Matt, however, is so out of the loop that he has missed the obvious. The wife (Patricia Hastie), glimpsed only in an unspoken accident flashback, was cheating on him. Alex knew. Others did, too. Now Matt wants to know who the guy is, wants some sort of closure. And he needs Alex's help for that.
Payne stirs all this into a rich, wistful brew. The Descendants has a wake, sad family get-togethers and family confrontations, and hopeless moments in which the only thing Matt has to cling to are thoughts of revenge on the guy his wife was cheating with, a man he's determined to stalk.
Woodley, of TV's The Secret Life of an American Teenager, beautifully gets across the child who has to take on an adult role but is nowhere near up to the task, despite her rude bravado. Nick Krause is agreeably goofy as her tag-along pal Sid, who has a gift for saying the wrong thing, especially in front of Alex's grumpy grandpa (Robert Forster, terrific). Also notable are Beau Bridges, as a laid-back floral-shirt-wearing cousin whose slouch says "surfer" but who has a scary business-face side. And the always-wonderful Judy Greer brings a subtle sub-surface hurt to the wife of the "other man" in Matt's wife's life.
Matt King is the 50-year-old Clooney's his first truly middle-aged-man role. The Kentucky native has to play competent but confused, a man whose value system seems sound (he's frugal, not spending his inherited wealth) until others question those values. It's a tricky performance, conveying heartbreak and fury, poignancy and pragmatism. It's some of his best work.
At times, Payne stumbles and takes us out of this engaging but slight tale. Early on, a stranger blurts out all the back story on the land deal, the media attention it has earned and native-born Hawaiians' attitudes about it, a scene that screams exposition. The stalking of the wife's lover seems like strained invention, and Sid is a simple plot device. We're all but waiting for this unschooled dolt to utter some profound insight, the way plot devices inevitably do.
But The Descendants, like the Napa Valley-set Sideways and the Nebraskan odyssey About Schmidt, lets Payne show us the Other America and the Other Americans — little lives caught up in small but epic problems far from the La La Land of Hollywood hype, sex and violence. In his hands, Hawaii seems a lot more than sun, surf, hula skirts and umbrella drinks, and the people there as universal as anyone who works, loves, loses and struggles, united or not, in these United States.