Director Alexander Payne has rarely been known for his visual flair, but the muddled family drama The Descendants thrives primarily because of Payne’s staging, and not so much because of the performances or script. Always good with locations, Payne adapts a book set in Hawaii while largely avoiding the “little slice of paradise” side of the islands (though he can’t stay away from it entirely). Instead, Payne dwells in the old family homes and office parks where Hawaiians actually spend their time. That fits with the plot of The Descendants, which stars George Clooney as a real-estate lawyer and lifelong Hawaiian trying to resolve some complicated family business while his wife spends her last few days of life comatose in a local hospital. Payne—working from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel, with co-screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash—aims to show how the external perception of certain people as prosperous, fortunate, or even just “happy” is never as true as it seems.
The Descendants gets that message across in scenes where characters openly confront the messes they’ve made and the ones they might leave behind. Payne lets the accumulation of heirlooms and clutter explain a lot of who these people are; but he also leans heavily on Clooney, who seems distressingly out of his element in a role that requires him to act more hurt and befuddled than suave. Or maybe it’s just that he doesn’t know what to do with the dialogue, which is startlingly tin-eared at times, given the writerly gifts Payne showed in Election and Sideways. The movie suffers from backstory-heavy voiceover narration in its first half, followed by an excess of quirky laugh lines down the stretch, just when it seems to be finding a stronger rhythm. There’s a shameless crowd-pleasing element to The Descendants that keeps its harder truths about family relationships at bay.
Still, Clooney’s movie-long journey from cousin to cousin and friend to friend—to deliver the news about his wife, and to learn more about what she was up to before her accident—keeps the locations and tone shifting, which also keeps The Descendants lively. And the Hawaiian setting gives the story a distinctive flavor that survives Payne’s efforts to bury it in schmaltz. For all its faults, it would be a mistake to dismiss a movie that features people we rarely see on a big screen, in places we seldom visit, trying to make sense of the relationships they’ve squandered and the futures they can still control. The Descendants veers between the cutesy and the overly earnest, but that’s partly because it’s about families and legacies, and as our Hawaiian siblings say, the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.