Alexander Payne looks ready to finally seize the acclaim and the gold that eluded him earlier
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Matt King (George Clooney) comes from a distinct lineage. In terms of his own narrative, that of the new Alexander Payne film The Descendants, he is a modern-day land baron, the trustee of a family that owns the last and largest untapped acreage in Hawaii. He and his cousins must choose a developer to work with (their land rights are about to expire), one who will ultimately convert this resource into the latest commercial hotspot with hotels, condos, and enough tourist attractions to keep the consumer-driven island economy afloat for several generations to come and leave the family wealthy beyond their wildest dreams (and most definitely those of their original ancestors who compiled this mass of territory through marriage and inheritances).
But King is a simple man, a lawyer with a wife (Patricia Hastie) and two daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), who lives off his own income and not that of the trust, a man adrift in paradise. At the fateful moment we encounter him though, King knows that paradise is a dream world for fools. His wife is hospitalized, in a coma, and unlikely to regain consciousness. He prays that she will, so that they can start to salvage a relationship that has obviously soured. He is unprepared for his new role as caretaker of his girls. He barely knows them. Scottie, the younger of the two, curses like a sailor and acts out, a play for attention, whereas Alexandra rebels because she carries a secret about her mother, that she was unfaithful, which will rock King, awakening him to his role as a survivor of the sins and generosity of the past, if he can only find his way.
So, King is a descendant here, of past good fortune and recent infidelity, but he stands in a longer, richer line — that of Payne’s scathing dramedies. Like Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) in Election, Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) in About Schmidt and Miles (Paul Giamatti) in Sideways, King finds himself beset by forces beyond his control and/or understanding -nothing so epic as to be deemed biblical in nature; just the inevitable struggles of life. But The Descendants benefits from time, coming seven years after Sideways, a period during which Payne also grappled with his own set of challenging circumstances (divorce, health, etc.) and came out the other side a different man, one more aware of his intrinsic humanity.
Which is what makes King a great (near perfect) addition to the Payne oeuvre. He, like Payne, is more in touch with his humanity, less lost in the drama, even when it dives into absurdity. King is never just a character; he is a man, one who learns how to survive. And while much of that success starts with Payne, as writer and director, the true lion’s share of the credit belongs to Clooney because he, the movie star, the director, the renaissance man, disappears, leaving only King and the people around him — performers like Judy Greer, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, and newcomer Woodley — who have room to live and breathe beside him.
Clooney and this cast prove to be the best Payne has to offer at this moment, and quite possibly they are the fittest example of our human dramatic potential. And for that, audiences should be welcome trustees.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.