Alexander Payne has been gone awhile after his award-winning Sideways. But thankfully, after an absence from cinema screens of 7 or so years he returns with George Clooney and Hawaii.
Clooney is Matt King, a lawyer whose family owns a large swathe of land on one of the islands.
The films begins with King's wife Elizabeth recently in a coma, seemingly lifeless. King, the back-up parent, must struggle to re-connect and guide his two young daughters while at the same time deciding what to do with the family's land. The land is held in trust, with King the sole trustee. However, the laws governing ongoing trusts are due to change and King & the cousins must decide who to sell their large swathe of untouched Hawaiian land to. It's a fair amount for any one person to juggle, and things are given an extra frisson when it is revealed to King that Elizabeth, prior to her vegetable-like state, had been having an affair.
Payne gives us a view of Hawaii not generally seen on screen. Past the beach-set poster and beach-casual attire of everyone, the film opens on life in downtown. Hawaii has cities just like anywhere else in the States; people struggle, people suffer and people die. There is no surfing here; this is no holiday in Hawaii to forget Sarah Marshall.
Instead King struggles to remember; to remember what his marriage was and not what he wanted it to be, to be remember how to talk to his daughters, to remember why his family are trustees of virgin, undeveloped Hawaiian land. For all those highly-charged emotions, there is a breath of comedy (often dark) that winds its way through the film. It isn't there to put the audience at a distance, but instead serves to humanise the events and the characters
There is a noticeable thematic strand that runs through all of Payne's films so far, in way or another: that of males confronting their own mortality (and generally fairly weak or weak-willed men). Whether it's Matthew Broderick's high-school teacher attempting to overcome Reese Witherspoon's over-achieving class presidential contender; Jack Nicholson's recently retired Schmidt taking off on a road-trip after a lifetime of safe simplicity or Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church carousing, drinking and navel-gazing around Californian vineyards. That continues, of course, in The Descendants with Clooney's King forced to confront the death of his marriage, and soon, the death of his wife.
There is not much here in the way of surprises, in that you are never really shocked by any character's reaction to an event or other character. But that is, in part, down to Payne's excellent character illustration and development; you find yourself unsurprised at their decisions because you get such a good feel for who these characters are. Clooney as the patriarch struggling to keep everything from his family to himself together has earned a number of critical plaudits already. And he is excellent, dialling down the usual "gorgeous George" charm to present someone smaller, a little broken. More human. Equally impressive is Shailene Woodley as King's eldest daughter, Alex. Alex is a slightly wayward teen, who has fought with her mother mainly because they are so similar. She has to help King with a lot of the heavy lifting, in looking out for youngest daughter Scottie and helping dad with tracking down the man who was sleeping with Elizabeth. There's a lot of conflicting emotions she has to deal with, a lot that has to be kept below the surface while she is outwardly outraged, and Woodley succeeds with the challenge.
The Descendants is a film I almost feel we're seeing less and less of: an intelligent, honest and relatable drama with imperfect, human characters. It can sometime seem we are bombarded with spectacle, whether it be blockbusters or awards-chasers, and so it is refreshing to have a film so seemingly intimate but with a lot to say.