Like Alexander Payne's last three films, his newest is based on a book, this time Kaui Hart Hemmings' best seller called THE DESCENDANTS, and it has more of the circuitous feel of a novel than ELECTION, ABOUT SCHMIDT, or SIDEWAYS. All of Payne's movies deal with people who feel disconnected with their own lives, and here the focus is on Matt King (George Clooney), the pater familia of a clan sprung from Hawaiian royalty who, as a result of their inherited beachfront land, are set to become billionaires once the development deal is done. King's figurehead status--he represents the family's interests in the sale--disguises his dourly fractured family life. His youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) is a tween brat. The older daughter Alexandra (a vital Shailene Woodley) is off at school, partying hard. And his wife is carrying on a secret life behind his back. But Matt is totally disengaged with all this. In the ersatz paradise of Hawaii, he is floating in a sea of numbers and is about to be jerked back into reality.
Clooney is already looking pretty hangdog as the film begins, his stylish grey hair looking finally like the product of stress. Things only get worse for him. First his wife lapses into a coma after a ski jet mishap. Matt gets blamed for the accident by his wife's cantankerous father (the always-welcome Robert Forster), who chides "If you had only bought her the boat she wanted, this wouldn't have happened." But Matt knows differently, because an exasperated Alexandra clues him in: Mom was having an affair. And so, as in all of Payne's films, we watch as a hero at last attempts to truly occupy a world they've allowed, through inattentiveness, to degenerate into vapitity.
Payne's movies always have an outrageousness that I've come depend on to commingle with their scripts' humanistic insights. But THE DESCENDANTS is never really off-the-charts hilarious or affecting; it's probably not even a comedy, though it's feels like it should be one (meanwhile, I was only moved once by the melodrama--when Matt withholds the truth about his wife from the chiding Forster). This is the director's first movie without his longtime screenwriting partner Jim Taylor, and I wonder if this is why it's the director's least lively film. THE DESCENDANTS is smart stuff, for sure, and there's a lot to like about its ruminations on respect and forgiveness--but it's not very fun. It's missing that raucous feel that permeates his other works; it turns out the most amusing character in it is Nick Krause's burnout teen, who's brought along on this ride by girlfriend Alexandra. (Krause--who makes this familiar archetype his own--and Clooney share the best scene in the film, a midnight tete-a-tete about personal tragedy that leads both to a shaky mutual admiration). There are always a lot of tears in Payne's movies, but this one asks us respond to heartfelt ones, while the director does crocodile tears a whole lot better.
The movie is solid and well-played (especially by Clooney, who delivers a terrifically harried performance), and I particularly liked the wryly overstated Hawaii feel to the art direction, and the stupendous collection of Hawaiian music injecting jolts of life into all this absorbing dreariness. But I would be lying if I didn't say that THE DESCENDANTS is a movie I respect more than love. It left me feeling not enervated and energized, as did CITIZEN RUTH and ELECTION, but instead rather uncomfortably blah (sort of like ABOUT SCHMIDT). Other than with one perfectly timed kiss, the movie just never seems to be taking any real chances and thus, for me, it's a mild disappointment.