In the same way that “aloha” can be used for either hello or goodbye, the Hawaii-set “The Descendants” contains its own contradictions — it’s an uproarious comedy about grief and loss, and a reminder that hell can exist quite comfortably in paradise.
Attorney Matt King (George Clooney) has a full plate, and it’s not because he’s at a luau. A descendant of one of the islands’ original colonists who married into Hawaii’s royal family, he is overseeing the sale of a huge chunk of family property, the last undeveloped beach in the state.
But it’s not just his money-hungry cousins and the voracious developers keeping him hopping; his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) was injured in a boating accident and now lies comatose in a hospital. Her absence forces Matt, who calls himself “the back-up parent, the understudy,” to deal with their two daughters: troubled 10-year old Scottie (Amara Miller) and rebellious teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley).
The last time Alexandra spoke with her mother, the two fought; when Matt brings her home for Elizabeth’s impending death, his daughter informs him that Elizabeth was cheating on him with another man.
So even with his wife being taken off life-support and the property sale just around the corner, Matt takes his family to the island of Kauai to track down his wife’s lover (Matthew Lillard) to let him know that she’s dying. Or maybe to punch him in the face. It could go either way.
With just a handful of films — shockingly, this is only his fifth feature — Payne has proven himself a master of a uniquely American brand of comedy. His characters lead lives of quiet desperation, only to find themselves blurting out buried, uncomfortable truths at the least likely moments.
Adapting the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings with Groundlings vets Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (Payne’s usual co-writer Jim Taylor is one of the film’s producers), Payne gets into Matt’s head and finds the humor in his suffering and his unexpected personal development with the same sure hand he brought to “Sideways” and “About Schmidt.”
Many filmmakers might not have thought of Clooney as the right guy to bring this cuckolded, grief-stricken dad to life on the screen, but the actor once again proves adept at constantly finding new colors in his paintbox. You think you know exactly how this work-distracted father is going to reconnect with his daughters, and what obligatory moments the movie will provide, but both the script and the stars are too smart for that.
Clooney is simply extraordinary, juggling a panoply of emotions while completely inhabiting the persona of this hard-working and harried regular guy. (He has a dorky style of running that reminded me of Cary Grant’s twitterpated body language in “Bringing Up Baby.”) He’s ably supported by youngsters Miller and Woodley, who offer deeply felt work that never gives off the “cute kid” stink.
Payne shoots Hawaii in a way that we’ve rarely seen on film — it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth, yes, but in this movie we believe that people actually live there — and he provides many moments for his talented ensemble to shine, from Robert Forster as Elizabeth’s embittered father to Mary Birdsong and Rob Huebel as friends who kept Elizabeth’s secrets from Matt.
Deserving special attention is Judy Greer, one of this generation’s great comedic character actresses, who takes a three-scene performance as the wife of Elizabeth’s lover and plays it for both laughs and heartache. It’s the sort of underappreciated, extraordinary turn that Thelma Ritter used to knock out of the park.
Neither the laughs nor the tears ever feel forced in “The Descendants,” and Payne masterfully elicits both along the way. Like Sid (Nick Krause) — Alexandra’s goofy but stealth-smart boyfriend who accompanies the family on their adventures — the film’s charms and its intelligence sneak up on you subtly, making you glad to be along for the ride.