Dir. Alexander Payne
(2011, R, 115 min)

The Descendants may be Alexander Payne‘s most emotionally direct film. It lacks the jagged edges of Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways, which accompanied their subjects with tart, sometimes caustic humor. The director seems to have mellowed over the years; I found Election overly cynical, while Schmidt and Sideways struck the right balance between biting wit and empathy. By those standards, The Descendants is downright conventional, but I don’t mean that as a criticism. It’s a well-paced drama, emotional but not cloying, serious but not ponderous, with touches of humor that aren’t forced.

George Clooney stars as Matt King, a Hawaii native who is estranged from his wife, though he doesn’t realize it until a boating accident leaves her in a coma from which she is unlikely to recover, after which he learns that she was having an affair. He has two daughters – young Scottie (Amara Miller) and teenage Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) – who have different understandings of their mother’s condition; deciding who to tell about the true state of their mother’s health, and when, and how is one of the story’s driving elements.

Payne’s approach is simple, and is aided by the performance of Clooney, who grounds the film in emotional reality without launching into fireworks – except for a couple of scenes in which he expresses grief and resentment to his comatose wife, which feel like out-of-place melodrama; I thought of Marlon Brando at his dead wife’s bedside in Last Tango in Paris and how this is the wrong movie for that kind of scene. His best moments are his subtler ones: the way he absorbs the contempt of his father-in-law (Robert Forster) and makes us understand why, and his measured anger when he confronts his wife’s lover (Matthew Lillard). I also thought of Rabbit Hole, which is a very dissimilar film except for how it simply absorbed me as a human story without ostentation. Payne’s direction is subtle to the point of being easily overlooked; it’s hard to make it look easy.