As director Alexander Payne’s movies have migrated westward geographically — from the Nebraska of “Citizen Ruth,” “Election” and “About Schmidt” to California’s Central Coast for “Sideways,” to Hawaii for “The Descendants” — his edge has considerably softened. By now, adapting Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, Payne risks disappearing up his own sunset.
Here George Clooney plays a Hawaiian lawyer having trouble hanging loose on account of wondering what to do with a huge unspoiled coastal property that’s been in his family for generations, plus the impending death of a wife (Patricia Hastie) who betrayed him, and the renewed responsibility of raising their two daughters (Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller), each in her own way a proverbial handful.
Although it takes some throat-clearing (or at least some of that throaty voiceover) to get this story set up, Payne does settle soon enough into a pleasing ratio of humor and heaviness. The narrative course for Clooney’s character is a sequence not of plot obstacles so much as interpersonal negotiations — with himself, his wife, his daughters, with Robert Forster as a combative father-in-law, Beau Bridges as a congenial cousin, Nick Krause as a teenage stoner boyfriend, Matthew Lillard as an unlikely romantic rival, and Judy Greer as the rival’s sweetly credulous wife. The movie seems very carefully cast, right down to its Laird Hamilton cameo, and the overall lack of falsity among the supporting players gives Clooney a lot to work with. He’s as subtle and strong as he’s ever been.
I’ve seen “The Descendants” twice now, and I liked it more on the second viewing but also realized why I found myself watching it again: It was the holidays, and we needed something we all could agree on — something not too moronic, but also, importantly, not too challenging either. Later, when someone avowed disappointment and described it as merely a token of “the quality film,” I couldn’t bring myself to disagree.
The same holiday hibernation also brought another viewing of “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which made clear a certain habit of Clooneyan line reading, an affectedly cynical tone of voice that can seem like a crutch. With this in mind, it’s intriguing to think that Payne turned Clooney down for the role that went to Thomas Haden Church in “Sideways” — a washed-up TV actor — on the grounds of Clooney quite obviously not seeming at all washed up.
“The Descendants” may not be too challenging, but that doesn’t mean it endorses complacency. Allowed to use not just his voice but also his face, and the full weight of his charisma, Clooney makes maturation seems like something we all do, or hope to, instead of just a chapter title in some screenwriting guide. This is a grief-soaked and gently manipulative movie, but also buoyantly humane; Payne is such a specialist of real-seeming people that even George Clooney starts to look like one.