Alexander Payne has shown in the likes of ‘Election’ (1999) and ‘About Schmidt’ (2002) that he finds humour no barrier to seriousness, or vice versa. Payne’s view of life is affectionate, with a hint of barb and caricature, and he takes a special interest in men in crisis and the healing power of journeys, both of which came together winningly in his last film, ‘Sideways’ (2004). Payne is also at ease among America’s richer suburbs and the folk who live there, so it’s no surprise he should be drawn to Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel ‘The Descendants’, the tale of a likeable Hawaiian lawyer born of old money who is trying to mend a fractured family and redefine his values. It’s a warm exercise in gentle observation, modest laughs and easy compassion, but it lacks the incision to make a major impact as drama or comedy. It’s too laidback to offend or excite. A middle-of-the-road road movie.
But within this framework ‘The Descendants’ offers numerous pleasures. George Clooney is Matt King, a wealthy Hawaiian with two young daughters and a wife (Patricia Hastie) in a coma after a speedboat accident. King narrates his own story: he and his wife had been drifting apart emotionally, and he had been losing sight of his kids too. Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) is 17 and misbehaving at boarding school before her father drags her home to deal with the fallout from her mother’s accident. Meanwhile, ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) is a bundle of anger and insults who alternates between bullying and being bullied at school.
Other matters are pressing. The first is a long-term issue: King must decide on behalf of his family whether to sell a large piece of land to a developer or keep it unspoilt. The second is a bolt from the blue: King’s wife was having an affair before she slipped into the coma from which the doctors say she will never recover. Together, they serve to launch King and his daughters on a healing tour of Hawaii.
Whether you buy Clooney as a family man – an unusual role for him – will affect how much you’re willing to buy ‘The Descendants’. I’m not sure he is convincing as a father of girls, even one with a lot of work to do, although he’s best when adrift and lost for words, such as in a tender nighttime scene in which he confides in his older daughter’s brash friend, Sid (Nick Krause). Much has been made of how Clooney has shed his chiselled image for this film but, bar the odd dodgy T-shirt, I can’t see it. Where Clooney and his co-stars excel, though, are in the moments between the comic set-pieces and dramatic high points, when they’re just hanging out or, in a poignant final scene, settling down to watch ‘March of the Penguins’ on the sofa.
Payne is an unobtrusive director, a filmmaker who lets the script do the walking – in this case, perhaps too much. The characterisation never feels deep enough and he struggles to rein in the comic moments so they don’t jar with the core of the story: a woman lying motionless in a hospital bed. A coma-dy is a brave goal to aim for, but it’s one that Payne just misses despite some nifty work en route.