Alexander Payne has this thing for mid-life crises. Whether pitting an exasperated high-school teacher against a scheming overachiever in his 1999 breakthrough Election, or dropping Jack Nicholson and a naked Kathy Bates in a hot tub for About Schmidt, or setting a pair of wine snobs loose in his last movie, 2004's Sideways, the writer-director doesn't see people in their 40s as well-adjusted men and women contributing to society. They're fucked-up individuals carrying around four decades of emotional baggage, relationship hassles, and personal vendettas.
In The Descendants, George Clooney plays Matt King, a lawyer in Hawaii whose family fell into a huge chunk of land generations ago. He has a nice house, two kids, and a wife who's cheating on him. Matt is away on business when he gets word that his wife Elizabeth is in a coma after a boat accident. As he implies, their marriage has been on its own life support for years. It's just the start of his problems. "Do they think we're immune to life?" he asks at one point.
Suddenly Matt is responsible for his daughters, a role he admits he isn't very good at ("I'm the backup parent," he says). Meanwhile, a huge deal involving the family's land is looming. Plus, there's the guy Elizabeth was having an affair with, whom Matt insists on meeting.
By really no fault of his own, Matt's midlife crisis crashes down harder than any found in Payne's other films. Within a matter of days, his new obligations not only involve raising two troubled girls by himself (one is 10 and lashing out; the other is 17 with a wild streak), but also telling family and friends that he's taking Elizabeth off life support, per her wishes.
As usual, Payne laces The Descendants with equal doses of humor and drama, though it's heavier on the latter this time. Payne doesn't make big movies, and big things rarely happen to his characters. This is a quiet movie, maybe his quietest. Clooney gives one of his most affective performances, touching on hurt, anger, resignation, and frustration as Matt works through his conflicts. He hates his wife for cheating on him, but he's also deeply hurt (he had no idea what was going on behind his back and in his bedroom). This is both Clooney and Payne's most emotionally taxing work.
Clooney keeps the movie on course when it starts to become a bit aimless — a typical Payne trait. (Judy Greer, as the wife, and Shailene Woodley, as the oldest daughter, provide strong support.) Payne, who co-wrote the screenplay, writes about very real people with very real problems. Like all of his movies, The Descendants offers resolution, but, like all of his movies, it's a resolution that takes a long, winding, and occasionally talky path. In a way, The Descendants is Payne's most honest movie — at least more honest than a film about two straight guys touring wine country together.
Dir. Alexander Payne: writ. Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, Kaui Hart Hemmings; feat. George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller (R)