Alexander Payne paints a different picture of Hawaii. In the opening montage of his new film The Descendants, the director not so gently reminds us that the island "paradise," with its little-photographed cities and suburbs, isn't exactly the Eden we've been sold. The sequence perfectly reflects Payne's no bullshit pragmatism, seen last in 2004's excellent Sideways. For gluttons for Payne, The Descendants has been a long time coming.
Based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the film follows George Clooney as Matt King, a wealthy lawyer with hereditary ties to Hawaiian royalty, and the sole trustee of his family's thousands of acres of untapped land. As King circles a buyer for the valuable property, his wife falls off a jet ski and into a coma — but there are no saints in an Alexander Payne movie. Even the comatose Mrs. King has her share of skeletons.
Few filmmakers walk the line between comedy and drama so effortlessly. The Descendants finds a happy middle ground in Payne's oeuvre, somewhere between the amusing introspection of About Schmidt and the droll wit of Sideways. And if the subject at hand seems too heavy or dry, never fear — Payne's world is colored by conflicted, flawed, funny, but singularly endearing people.
Take King's daughter's dopey friend Sid, a character with shades of Election's all-heart-no-brains jock, Paul Metzler ("You Betzler!"). Or better yet, take King himself, who bares all the familiar scars of an Alexander Payne protagonist. From his casual narcissism to his angered impulsiveness, King's foibles are many, brought vividly to life by George Clooney.
Payne has a history of stranding his actors outside their comfort zone. Clooney isn't as malleable a leading man as Paul Giamatti, but there are sides of him in The Descendants that I haven't seen before. He plays King with an empathetic weakness many of his past roles have lacked. Clooney characters tend to overcompensate for their flaws with charisma, with interest. Under Payne, Clooney doesn't have the luxury of playing up that strength, and the results are revealing.
This isn't the first time Payne has deliberately subverted audience preconception, either. No doubt he had Ferris Bueller in mind when he cast Matthew Broderick as a high school civics teacher in Election. He got Jack Nicholson (Chinatown's Jake Gittes!) to play a curmudgeonly widower in About Schmidt. In The Descendants, George Clooney, Sexiest Man Alive twice over, cries.
Alexander Payne's films have been accused of being callous and misanthropic, but The Descendants highlights his earnest side as well. It isn't sentimental, and it earns it moments of sentimentality. Early on, the film teeters on the precipice of becoming a tacky father-daughter Movie Of the Week. The tropes are there, but Payne stylishly navigates a minefield of clichés in which most directors would eventually misstep.
A near perfect combination of comedy and catharsis, The Descendants is an impressive film from a director who's been dormant too long. Seemingly, not much has changed for Payne since he released Sideways seven years ago, but the hiatus has made him no less confident in his unique American perspective. Welcome back, Alex.