The Descendants is a grown-up movie about grown-up problems, and that alone makes it rather old-fashioned. When's the last time you saw a studio picture that didn't seem to care one about the coveted teenage demographic? Here we have a movie about a man struggling with the stuff of life and death—terminal illness, a tumultuous marriage, and infidelity. Major business decisions, parenting problems, a family in turmoil. Showing grace and forgiveness to the people who have wronged him the most. This is grown-up stuff, all right, and the movie doesn't take it lightly.
It is perhaps rather unsurprising that the movie stars the perennially grown-up (and old-fashioned) George Clooney, who brings great intelligence and feeling to a film in which he is the emotional center. It is more surprising that this comes from director Alexander Payne, who also co-authored the screenplay. Payne's past movies (Sideways, About Schmidt) have also been about grown-ups facing tough circumstances, but those movies seemed to invite a certain sense of scorn at the failings of their characters—or at least, they encouraged us to laugh at foolish behavior. There's a time and a place for that, but The Descendants is disarming in its riches of empathy and compassion. My favorite thing about it is how Payne's camera lingers on people's faces for so long, allowing us to search them for human dignity. We find it even in the characters we like least.
The face we see the most, of course, is Clooney's. He plays Matt King, a successful Hawaiian lawyer who's facing a tough case—namely, the proposed sale of his family's land, which could result in a major windfall for his bankrupt cousins but ultimately prove detrimental to the community at large. ...1