By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Alexander Payne loves blowing his characters sideways through life. They're usually their own worst enemies, blind to personal imperfections until reality slaps them in the face. A road-tripping widower, a loutish wine snob, a high school teacher learning harsh lessons — they're all stuck in reverse and pathetically grinding emotional gears.
The Descendants is Payne's latest foray into middle-aged craziness and the most completely satisfying movie he has created. As usual, the writing inspires note-perfect performances, especially George Clooney's as someone whose ancestors left plenty and who isn't passing along what his daughters need.
Clooney plays Matt King, who is troubled in paradise, since his family owns a chunk of it. Matt's lineage dates back to Hawaii's colonial past, with 15,000 acres of untouched beachfront property bequeathed to a cadre of cousins. The land is for sale, and as sole trustee, Matt has the final say. Nobody else worries as much about what his great-great-great grandfather would choose.
At the same time, Matt's household has hit the rocks. His wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), lies comatose after a boating accident, leaving Matt to act as the parent he was previously too busy to be. Youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) is acting out her unhappiness, and snotty older sister Alex (Shailene Woodley) attends prep school a couple of islands away.
Adding insult to Matt's multiple ego injuries, Alex breaks the news that Elizabeth was cheating on him. He had no idea, but there were plenty of clues to her dissatisfaction, casually dropped with hindsight precision by friends who paid attention. Matt and Alex begin sharing what seems to be their first bonding experience, searching for the man who cuckolded him.
The Descendants would be depressing except that tragedy always brings out the absurd in Payne. Sometimes it's physical comedy, like Matt's awkward, flip-flopped dash to a neighbor's home to ask what the neighbor knew about Elizabeth. Or it might be a poetically profane comment revealing as much as it vents. Maybe it's the traditional Hawaiian music Payne uses, upbeat ukuleles and yodels contrasting with the angst. Not big laughs but smart ones.
The screenplay is marvelously worded, from Matt's opening voice-over establishing his bumpy life, to the final lines coming from another movie yet clearly speaking to this one. Payne and co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash constantly find truth in characters lying to themselves, played naturally by actors with seemingly accidental wit. These people don't know how silly, vapid or wise they sound, and that's where the fun is.
Clooney has never been better, displaying more range and less actor-ego than ever before. There's barely a trace of the confidence he typically projects, only enough to remind us of the man Matt could be if he hadn't screwed up. Clooney's scenes with Woodley — a real find — are amusing, moving essays of father-daughter dynamics, no slight feat for such a famously confirmed bachelor. The Descendants would still be a splendid movie without him; with Clooney, it's one of 2011's very best.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365.