With previous films including Election and Sideways, director Alexander Payne has illustrated immature but grown men kicking and screaming their way into growing up. After a seven year absence, Payne is back with The Descendants, exploring familiar territory, but instead pushing his characters painfully towards adulthood, the protagonist is surprisingly mellowed.
In the film, George Clooney plays Matt, a Husband and Father who has every reason to put up a fit – his daughters are acting up in ways he can’t control, and his wife, who might have been able to help him out, is kept on life support after an accident leaves her inches from her own grave (to mention nothing of his Wife’s wayward ways that he doesn’t learn of until it’s almost too late). And on top of all that, he’s engineering the sale of his family’s valuable, inherited and untouched Hawaiian real estate to one of two corporations.
But to reduce The Descendants to its plot would be underselling it. Payne’s script lacks in character development – the side plot about heritage only works on a minor, tangential level, and Matt hardly changes throughout the movie’s overlong two hours – but none of that has too harmful of an influence on the final product. What defines the film is the brutal, sometimes funny truth brought to the characters by a fantastic supporting cast. Humor is expertly harnessed here to tell a difficult story, with some really sharp turns from the always-strong if never-great Clooney, and supporting players Nick Krause and – I never saw this coming – Matthew Lillard.
There are some simple plotting issues, but The Descendants makes its story work by letting its players take center stage with simple, affecting acting.