In his key films Election (1999), About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004), writer-director Alexander Payne has explored the borders between serious drama and comedy, and the way humour (admittedly of a darkish hue) can crash indelicately into tragic moments.
After seven years away from feature-length films, Payne’s commitment to this grey area of human emotions remains unbroken. The Descendants stars George Clooney as Matt King, who runs a law practice in Hawaii and is the sole trustee of the last parcel of virgin land on one of its islands, owned by his sprawling extended family.
Successful, wealthy and hard-working, he is a disaster as a family man. He and his wife have drifted into silence; he barely knows the two daughters she has raised virtually alone. As he puts it, he’s “the back-up parent, the understudy”. When his thrill-seeking wife is critically injured in a water-skiing accident, he must become a proper parent to his forthright, disaffected girls.
In the past, Clooney has relished working with directors (the Coen brothers, Steven Soderbergh) who nudge him from his comfort zone, and he responds magnificently to Payne’s creation of a dad out of his depth. Clooney plays Matt partly as a figure of fun; he runs awkwardly in flat leisure shoes, wears ghastly Hawaiian shirts and allows his kids to berate him. “It’s like you don’t respect authority,” he wails at one point, the thought only belatedly dawning on him.
Still, there’s more than comedy here: after a shocking secret about his wife is revealed, The Descendants becomes a story about grief, forgiveness and acceptance, with the man at its centre re-assessing his priorities and his sense of identity.
Intriguingly Payne, in adapting the novel by Hawaiian author Kaui Hart Hemmings, shows a Hawaii quite different from the paradise presented in tourist brochures. It has ugly high-rises, poverty, traffic jams – and its human sorrows are no lighter than in more humdrum places.
There’s already awards buzz around Clooney’s performance, and rightly so; he’s in virtually every scene and shoulders the entire picture. Shailene Woodley is excellent as his elder daughter, an angry, alienated 17-year-old.
Still, this is Payne’s creation, and despite a loss of pace two-thirds through, it’s a thoughtful, generous-spirited work. Few films have captured so perfectly our awkward reactions to grieving that may be inappropriate – or merely human.