The Descendants

George Clooney and Alexander Payne catch the trade winds.

The Descendants is probably the best film of 2011. George Clooney’s role of Matt King, a family man with decisions to make, may well be the finest of his career so far. Alexander Payne, the film’s director, is without a doubt the most humane filmmaker working in America today. That’s a mouthful. Let me elaborate.

It’s a more circumspect, slightly graying Clooney that we meet in the role of Matt, a rich hapa haole from contemporary Honolulu. Actually Matt is a bit more than half white — his great-great-grandfather, a Yankee settler from the mainland, came to the islands, set up a successful business, and married a prominent native woman, the last direct descendant of the legendary King Kamehameha. And so Matt and his cousins find themselves heirs to a fortune. In fact, as the film opens they are considering selling the state’s last great privately owned parcel of land, a spectacular “piece of paradise” on the island of Kaua’i, to a developer, making them even wealthier.

But oddly enough, that’s not the uppermost thing in Matt’s mind. His wife Liz (Patricia Hastie) has been critically injured in a boating accident and is now on life support in the hospital, in a coma. Liz’ prognosis is precarious. This leaves Matt — an easy-going sort who admits to us in voiceover that he’s the “back-up” parent to his spoiled, attention-starved daughters, pre-teen Scottie (Amara Miller) and teenage Alex (Shailene Woodley) — questioning not only the future of his nuclear family but his relationship to his wife, and indeed his place in the fabric of his community.

What a community it is. Director Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt), always a careful creator of characters, populates Matt’s world with a completely naturalistic cast of local types, from Liz’ cantankerous father (Robert Forster) and Alex’ rough-tough-creampuff boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) to Matt’s hang-loose cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges). The wistful, lovely music by Gabby Pahinui, Ray Kane, Keola Beamer, and other traditional artists lends to the mood perfectly. In the screenplay — written by Payne with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings — Matt feels a connection to the island’s terrain and people that might only occur to someone in his position. He’s seeing the big picture for the first time in his life. Matt is cut from the same cloth as Michael Clayton and Ryan Bingham from Up in the Air, with the added touch of the ancient island nobility and depth of spirit that keeps calling out to him. Clooney nails Matt. Even when he makes a small misstep he seems totally right.

Payne is certainly one of our finest filmmakers. All his movies are essentially sitcoms, but in his handling of the characters — in the way they manage to open up, say, a spiteful high-school class-president campaign (in Election) or the career of a glue-huffing tramp who keeps getting pregnant (Citizen Ruth) into a glib, light-hearted, yet empathetic examination of the human condition — Payne is in a class by himself. Time and again we’re reminded of the wonderful Preston Sturges, another writer-director who loved Americans for what they are, not what he wanted them to be. That’s the America we see in The Descendants and in Clooney’s Matt King.

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