The director Alexander Payne is known for black comedies featuring dazed and confused male protagonists. Think of Matthew Broderick in “Election” or Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church in “Sideways.” Yet he deserves equal recognition for his sensitive adaptations of novels. The Descendants, based on a book of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings, is Payne’s fourth film adaptation, and a sign that his reading list is growing in interesting directions.
Hemmings is not a well-known author, and perhaps that is to Payne’s advantage. There are no rabid fans to dissect the differences between film and text. Still, adaptation is a difficult art, and Payne has managed to find books that work nicely on screen, with little of the portentous voiceovers that tends to spoil films about books. In The Descendants, Payne, a graduate of the Jesuit high school Creighton Prep in Omaha, has found source material that builds upon his oeuvre without replicating it. He brings us another middle-aged man at loose ends, but one whom seems more grown up than his predecessors.
George Clooney has already generated significant Oscar talk for his lead role, but the whole cast is superb, with Robert Forster, Beau Bridges and Judy Greer deserving special mention. It is unfortunate that the Academy does not recognize the acting of an ensemble cast. Clooney and company prove that great performances do not emerge from a vacuum.
“The Descendants” is imbued with more pathos than a typical Payne film. Clooney plays Matt King, the paterfamilias of a family at a crossroads. His wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), lies in a coma after a crashing in a boat race. For the first time in a long time, he must learn how to be a father to his two daughters. He must also contend with an irascible father-in-law (Forster), who holds him partially responsible for Elizabeth’s accident, and friends who press him for updates on his wife’s condition. Oh, and he belatedly discovers that Elizabeth was having an affair at the time of the crash.
In another Payne film, such a confluence of events might send the male protagonist into a frenzy of frustration. Yet King is oddly subdued. When he first hears about his wife’s affair from his daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), he does not yell or scream, but sprints out the door to the house of two close friends. His heated interrogation of the couple (what did they know and when?) is a rare outburst. Mostly, Matt holds it together.
Over the course of the film, Matt approaches a kind of maturity that has long eluded him. He declines to dispute his father-in-law’s claim that Elizabeth was a “devout wife,” graciously allowing him to hold onto this piece of fiction as he watches his daughter slowly fade away. When Alexandra’s spacey friend, Sid (Nick Krause), laughs at her grandmother’s dementia, King does not respond with anger. It is left to his father-in-law to (literally) punch him in the nose. Matt understands that, even at 17, Sid is just a kid. To some, Matt may simply seem afraid of confrontation, but his exercise of restraint ultimately comes across as sensible, even wise.
It is tempting to attribute Matt’s laid-back attitude to his place of residence: the islands of Hawaii. Yet as he explains at the start of the film, the residents of Hawaii do not live in a utopian paradise. Cool trade winds and gorgeous beaches do not exempt one from the normal disappointments and tragedies of life. Matt, a less than happy lawyer whose relationship with Elizabeth was fraying long before her affair, knows this better than most.
Even though the story is told from the point of view of a “howlie,” the film’s portrayal of Hawaiian life feels convincing. (It certainly does a better job than “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” which rarely left the Hawaiian resort.) There are the little details: Clooney’s slightly shaggy mane; executives wearing Aloha shirts instead of suits; a reference to Punahou School. What the film does best, though, is impart the importance of family in the Hawaiian tradition. From Matt’s fractured nuclear family, to his large networks of cousins, aunts and uncles, to Elizabeth’s friends and well-wishers, the characters in “The Descendants” are rarely alone. They may fight in ugly and profane ways, but they never abandon one another, especially in difficult times.
The family circles extend beyond the living to the dead. Matt is the executor of large estate on the island of Kauai that he and his cousins inherited from their royal ancestors. Added to the tragedies he faces is the question of what to do with the land, a gorgeous parcel of virgin territory that some cousins hope to sell to a developer. When the family meets to vote on the question, they gather in a house filled with pictures of their dead relatives. For them the past is still very much alive. In his few short scenes, Beau Bridges, playing Matt’s cousin Hugh, cleverly conveys the unseen bonds that keep this unusual family together.
Elizabeth also serves as a ghostly presence in the film. She hovers on the edge of life and death, serving as a silent interlocutor for Matt and the rest of the King family. As Elizabeth’s condition worsens, each are allowed a moment alone with her. Even Judy Greer, who plays the wife of the man with whom Elizabeth had an affair, feels the need to talk to her. “I forgive you,” she says, again and again, louder and louder until Matt intervenes. What is it about a comatose patient that concentrates the mind? Like Pedro Almodovar (“Talk to Her,”) Payne is intrigued by the questions raised and the emotions stirred by a woman on the verge of death.
The title “The Descendants” can refer to several groups of people: Matt’s two daughters, left motherless by circumstance; Matt and his cousins, mulling the fate of their ancestral land; the people of Hawaii, entrusted with a precious but fragile resource. The film does not, however, hint at another meaning of descendants: the children of Abraham. Though “The Descendants” is a poetic meditation on the meaning of land and family, it has little overt to say about faith or the afterlife. Even when the Kings face the grim reality of death, God is never mentioned. The omission of religion is to be expected from a Hollywood film, but coming from the Jesuit-educated Payne, we might have hoped for something more.