I'm a big fan of Alexander Payne. Ever since his brilliant sophomore effort, 1999's Election, I've found him to be a filmmaker whose work consistently rewards viewing. Okay, I didn't totally adore Sideways, but I could still appreciate it. Payne has a fondness for exploring the petty and banal aspects of human behavior, but even in his films' more outrageous moments, nothing ever rings false (except maybe in Citizen Ruth). It's been seven years since Sideways, but Payne has returned with another clear-eyed portrait of ordinary Americans in crisis, proving again his gift for finding and adapting new and refreshingly little-known novels to the big screen.
The Descendants is based on the debut novel by Hawaiian author Kaui Hart Stevens (which she herself had expanded from a short story of hers) and takes place mostly around the Oahu neighborhoods that tourists never see. George Clooney plays one of several distant cousins who are the titular descendants of a 19th century Hawaiian-Anglo couple. Just as the family prepares to unload a huge chunk of pristine land on Kauai to a developer for untold millions, with Clooney as the sole trustee, Clooney's wife is injured in an accident and sinks into a coma from which she will never emerge. Added to Clooney's woes are the stress of dealing with his two daughters, the older of whom has entered her rebellious years.
The film could be seen as something of a companion piece to Payne's About Schmidt, and although one might well guess how the story all turns out, it's how the characters get there that really matters. With a soundtrack of gentle Hawaiian music and a genuine appreciation for a locale that surprisingly doesn't show up very often in American movies (unless it's subbing for somewhere else, like a deserted island or the jungles of South America or Southeast Asia), Payne has created a unique family drama that earns its emotions scene by scene. Clooney is in fine form and leads a pitch-perfect cast, so good that even when some familiar faces show up, their presence doesn't distract. This is a completely satisfying movie, by turns amusing, painful, and heartbreaking. I can cite no reason why you should not see, and enjoy, The Descendants.