No matter how many times I see an Alexander Payne film, I find myself caught off guard by something in the story. It happened with Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, and again with The Descendants, the film Payne, co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings novel. I expected some variety of comedy with serious undertones, both of which originating from flawed characters that can't quite connect, so in that respect The Descendants is consistent with Payne's other films. What surprised me was the humanity behind the laughs, and the complications in the narrative that undercut the misanthropy he normally imbues his characters with.
That's the simple way to explain The Descendants. It also only covers the first twenty minutes of the film, because the revelation that Elizabeth was having an affair with realtor Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) and planned on leaving Matt before her accident is the catalyst for much of what happens in the story. Matt becomes obsessed with meeting Speer, to confront him and let him know that Elizabeth is lying in a hospital, dying, if for nothing else than to see the look on his face. With Scottie, Alexandra, and Sid in tow, he follows Brian on a business trip from one island to another, where he discovers that Speer is also married. Brian's wife Julie (Judy Greer) is also unaware of her husbands philandering ways, and Matt has to decide whether he's willing to destroy another family as his is in the process of crumbling.
Brian also stands to benefit from Matt in a totally different way: King and his family are descendants of the last royalty of Hawaii, and they own 25,000 acres in Kauai. Their trust is going to be dissolved in seven years, so the family has been fielding offers to sell their inheritance to developers, and Matt is responsible for making the ultimate decision on if they sell it and to what interests. If he sells to the local developer his cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges) supports, then Brian is going to make a small fortune off of the deal.
The film raises the larger question about whether the family, descended from the union of Hawaiian and European / American bloodlines, really has any right to control land they have only the slightest connection to. They treat the native land as property, something they can use to camp on but a financial asset; they'd rather profit from it than lose it altogether, and the decision to sell it upsets families around Matt's home in Honolulu. Most of the cousins want to sell it because they've burned through their financial inheritance; only the penny pinching Matt saved everything, even from his family, which is one reason Elizabeth's father Scott Thurson (Robert Forster) blames him for the accident.
All of this is the backdrop for dealing with loss, with grief, betrayal, responsibility, and with being unsure that you can be the person expected of you by others. The Descendants is alternately very funny and deeply saddening, but avoids falling into the traps of trivializing the gravity of the King's predicament or reducing the comical nature of these seemingly unrelated, compounding coincidences in service of tear-jerking.
At the core of this balancing act is George Clooney, who plays Matt King as kind of a spaz. He's somebody who prefers business to interpersonal relations, who is convinced he can make up for all of this later, and who is totally lost when it falls apart. He's also driven purely by impulse: when Alexandra tells him about the affair, his first reaction is to run down the street to Kai and Mark Mitchell (Mary Birdsong and Rob Huebel)'s house to ask Elizabeth's friends if it's true. In spite of everything Matt needs to do, that he tells his daughters needs to be done, he is insistent on finding Brian Speer, to settling the score even though it means nothing. It's more important to him than forgiving his wife, a blank slate he can only project onto at this point.
Clooney is fantastic in a very un-Clooney role. The screen persona cultivated by Clooney and many of his collaborators is of a man who, delusional or otherwise, is wholly confident in his actions. As Matt King, Clooney is a man out of control, a vulnerable, petty man in way over his head with two daughters asserting themselves in very different ways. Speaking of which, Woodley and Miller are also excellent as Alexandra and Scottie, neither of whom are prepared for the situation they find themselves in. Nick Krause nearly steals the show as Sid, a character that seems at first only to be there for comic relief, but as Matt begins to (inexplicably) rely on his Zen approach to life, we learn more about why he and Alexandra are drawn to each other, and in keeping with the rest of the film, it's more complicated than it seems.
I say almost steals the film because Judy Greer, in a small amount of screen time, gives The Descendants a heart. Lillard's Brian Speer has a moment or to that keep him from just being "the other man" in the film, but Julie Speer shows decency to Matt and to Elizabeth, even though she has every right to be as bitter as the protagonist of the film. I'm used to seeing Alexander Payne films with emotionally fragile leads who struggle to coexist with their mutual baggage, but Greer as Julie is something different. She's an innocent who chooses not to lash out, but to do right, and accordingly shapes how Matt comes to terms with his life. It's a minor epiphany, not telegraphed to the audience immediately.
To be fair, when the one thing you expect to happen does happen, I was torn about whether Matt does it out of altruism or to be vindictive. It's not clear, and Payne wisely cuts away from the "big speech" moment and transitions back to the family drama, having wrapped up a more or less traditionally expected narrative thread. Like Sideways, The Descendants is to me a strange choice for the Academy Awards: it is by all means a fine film, but one that spends much of its time dwelling in the worst of human behavior. It's not as hopeless as, say, Melancholia, but The Descendants is concerned more with small, emotional moments than War Horse, Hugo, The Help, or The Artist. It's a decidedly low-key film with fine performances, the kind of movie I think is going to age well, and deserving of its Best Adapted Screenplay, so maybe it's okay it was overshadowed by the competition.