The Descendants is Alexander Payne's first movie since 2004's Sideways, his first not to have Jim Taylor as his co-writer, and his first to take place somewhere other than the U.S. mainland. But that doesn't mean he's reinventing himself. The new film -- set in Hawaii and co-written by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, based on Kaui Hart Hemmings' 2007 novel -- has many of the same darkly comic themes as Election and About Schmidt, and Payne continues to live up to his name as a wry observer of modern American crises.
The poor saps this time around are at least lucky enough to be unlucky in a temperate climate. Matt King (George Clooney) lives prosperously on the laid-back island of Oahu, where every day is casual Friday and "some of the most powerful people look like bums and stuntmen." Matt had a real Hawaiian princess in his lineage 150 years ago, and his family still owns some 25,000 acres of paradise on Kauai that he and his numerous cousins will soon be obligated to sell. Matt is the trustee. All of Hawaii awaits his decision.
In the midst of this headache comes a more serious one. Matt's thrill-seeking wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), was critically injured in a speedboat accident three weeks earlier, and has remained comatose ever since. Her living will stipulates that she not be kept on life support if doctors conclude she won't recover. Matt and his daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley), must prepare themselves to say goodbye.
And in the midst of THAT headache comes, if not a bigger one, then at least one that complicates things: Matt learns that Elizabeth was cheating on him. Their marriage had been on the rocks as Matt traveled between islands on business, but he had no clue it was this bad. Alex, a rebellious girl who's been attending a strict boarding school, learned Mom's secret some months ago and has been resentful ever since.
The movie explores the fine line between grief and anger, a line that's even more treacherous when you're angry at the person you're grieving. Do people like Elizabeth's father (Robert Forster), who idolizes his daughter and blames Matt for her accident, need to know the whole truth? Does young Scottie? Should Alex disregard this and remember only the positive things about Elizabeth? Should Matt?
Such somber material could be the basis for a piercing drama, and Payne doesn't treat it lightly. He does let the comedy seep in, though, in a natural, rewarding way, without turning the King family's problems into farce. George Clooney, anchoring the film with his customary rock-solid charm, is also our emotional bellwether: We look to him to know whether we should be laughing or crying. Characters like Mark (Rob Huebel) and Kai (Mary Birdsong), a married couple Matt and Elizabeth are friends with, are there essentially for comic relief; others, like Alex's idiot boyfriend (Nick Krause), seem to have a similar function at first, then reveal themselves to be more complex than we thought. (Some of the boyfriend's early moments are almost implausibly dopey, though.) When Matt finally meets the man Elizabeth was seeing, the confrontation is hilarious, uncomfortable, and electric. Matthew Lillard and the unsung Judy Greer give terrific supporting performances that perfectly balance humor with pathos.
Payne likes to put his characters through the wringer but have them come out of it with a hard-won happy (or at least hopeful) ending. That holds true for The Descendants, so you don't need to worry that the sadness of the story will leave you depressed. You might wish the conclusion arrived sooner, though -- the film is a tad overlong -- or that Payne and his co-writers had found a better way to provide exposition than to have Matt serve as narrator. But overall, this mature, well-acted dramatic comedy is deeply satisfying, maybe even cathartic.