Part Coen brothers and part James L. Brooks, Alexander Payne makes comedies about serious stuff like abortion and midlife crises. His characters may verge on caricature and his scripts on contrivance, but nuanced acting and lingering close-ups make their emotions feel vividly, even painfully real.
His best film since Election, aside from the segment he directed for Paris Je T'aime, The Descendants is based on a novel written by a young woman, Kaui Hart Hemmings, which may explain why the two girls in the story feel so well-rounded. But then, Payne has always gravitated toward interestingly prickly female characters, from the glue-sniffing title character of Citizen Ruth to Election's endlessly ambitious Tracy Flick and the impetuous biker played by Sandra Oh in Sideways.
The main women in this story are Matt King's (George Clooney) wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), and the couple's two daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley), both of whom are acting out like crazy as the story begins. Elizabeth never speaks a word (we see her first as a gigantic face filling the screen with delight as she rides in a speeding motorboat, then as a comatose husk of a body in a hospital bed), but we get a pretty good sense of her through the things other people say about her—and to her as she lies there, a pale slate for other people to scrawl their emotions on.
Her injury leaves her workaholic husband to care for the daughters to whom he has always been an absent presence. Matt, Alex, and Scottie have to come to terms with Elizabeth's condition. They also have to learn how to be a family in a whole new way, since Matt has been just the "backup parent" up to now, as he says in a voiceover that dominates the first part of the film but fades away in the second, as he finds people other than himself to talk to. As if that weren't enough, everything Matt thought he knew about his marriage is upended when Alex tells him that Elizabeth had been having an affair before the accident that knocked her out.
Hawaiian culture is as strong a presence in this film as Omaha was in Citizen Ruth and California's wine country was in Sideways. We don't see much of the state, but what we do see is heavy on aging beach bums ("In Hawaii," Matt tells us, "some of the most powerful people look like bums and stuntmen") and light on picturesque volcanoes and beaches. More than halfway through the film, Matt asks a cousin who's driving him and his girls from the airport on Kauai to make a detour to the family holdings. (Another subplot has Matt guiding a huge clan of cousins to a decision about how to dispose of 25,000 gorgeous acres of Kauai that belong to the family, since their great-great-grandmother was a Hawaiian princess.) "Let's see the land," he says, and he might be talking to us, since the magnificent vista we're about to be treated to is the first we've seen since the movie started.
Matt is supposed to be an ordinary shlub, but, as good as Clooney is here, he can't quite pull off ordinary. He does manage to look tired and unglamorous, his shoulders tensely awkward and his waistband too high. When Matt finds out about the affair, he takes off running with none of Clooney's natural grace, his elbows flailing and his feet slapping the ground noisily. But the real power of Clooney's performance rests in his eyes, which always let us know just what Matt is feeling, whether he's warily greeting a cousin, confronting his wife's lover in a near-paralyzing rage, watching his daughters in frustrated silence, or gazing into space, stunned at the news of another betrayal.
Matt is not the only character whose soul is bared. All but the most minor characters have at least one emotional scene where they get to reveal their true face, often triggered by news of Elizabeth's dire condition. (Grief is always closely linked to anger in The Descendants, and people generally cope with a blow by attacking somebody else.) But the excellent cast—particularly Clooney, Woodley, and Robert Forster as Elizabeth's fiercely devoted father—keeps the rolling epiphanies from feeling rote.
The 49th New York Film festival runs from September 30 to October 16. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.