Alexander Payne makes movies about men on the brink — of a nervous breakdown, of personal or professional ruin and, ultimately, maybe even some hard-earned peace. That was true of Matthew Broderick's scheming teacher in "Election," Jack Nicholson's searching retiree in "About Schmidt" and Paul Giamatti's sloppy oenophile in "Sideways," and it's certainly true of George Clooney in "The Descendants."
As real-estate lawyer Matt King, he finds everything in his life is in flux and on the verge of collapse simultaneously. He isn't just functioning one day at a time, he's navigating the chaos one hour at a time. This isn't any easier even though he lives in Hawaii, a place that's supposed to be paradise.
Clooney being Clooney, though, he makes every stage of his character's arc believable, from grief through anger and eventual acceptance, and he gives a performance that's so understated as to appear effortless. Having long ago learned to jettison movie-star vanity to play varied, challenging parts — and having turned 50 this year — Clooney now seems comfortable portraying regular guys with regular problems. What Matt must endure cumulatively is extraordinary, but elements of his journey will surely resonate with ordinary folks.
Matt's wife, Elizabeth, is lying in a hospital bed in a coma following a boating accident. By all accounts, she's been a bit of a wild child her whole life, but now there isn't much hope that she's going to make it. Matt, who hasn't been the most available or hands-on father, must now take care of the couple's two daughters on his own: 17-year-old boarding school rebel Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and 10-year-old troublemaker Scottie (Amara Miller).
Matt and the girls must make the rounds to friends and family to explain there isn't much time left for Elizabeth and to give them a chance to say their good-byes. This process would seem wrenching enough, but Alexandra insists on making it even more difficult by bringing along her idiot boyfriend, Sid (Nick Krause), for moral support.
Then she drops another bombshell on her father: Elizabeth was having an affair at the time of her accident. Matt is understandably incensed by the discovery, but he's also curious to find out who this guy is, and his bumbling attempts at casual stalking provide some much-needed comic relief.
As if all this weren't enough to handle, Matt's enormous family has put him in charge of deciding what to do with the 25,000 acres of pristine land on Kauai that they've inherited from their royal Hawaiian ancestors. A deadline is looming to choose whether to sell it to developers, and to whom, and for how much; this burden of privilege is what gives the film, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, its title. (Payne adapted the script with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.)
Matt wades through all these troubles, and while everything would seem to be at stake at once, Payne's pacing is often so languid that we don't feel the sort of mounting tension that we should. Maybe it has something to do with the laid-back setting (although it is novel to see this beautiful place through the eyes of everyday residents, rather than tourists). "The Descendants" also loses some of its power in the frequent use of voiceover, which tends to spell out too much.
But the story keeps you guessing as to where it will go, and it features some piercing moments of emotional truth. The casting of Matthew Lillard as the other man is an unexpected and inspired choice, and the inevitable confrontation with him takes some surprising turns; this is also true of the interactions with his wife, played by Judy Greer.
This is, of course, Clooney's show — he's in nearly every moment of the film, and he delivers a doozy of a moment-of-truth speech — but both young actresses who play his daughters hold their own beautifully with him. Woodley in particular shows a confident spark as her character believably develops from a state of bitter resentment to mature responsibility. The last shot indicates how all three of them have changed with quiet uplift.
"The Descendants," a Fox Searchlight release, is rated R for language including some sexual references. Running time: 115 minutes.