Alexander Payne has a very specific type of filmic style. He is one of the few auteurs of the moment with an instantly recognizable technique. In the span of his lengthy career, Payne has only written and directed five feature films--all memorable and all able to give off the illusion that he has made a greater number of movies. With The Descendants, his first release since the critically lauded Sideways came out in 2004, Payne forces us to remember why we keep going to see his always emotionally epic productions.
The inevitably affecting George Clooney plays Matt King, a well-off beneficiary of an untouched stretch of land on the island of Kauai. Along with a litany of cousins (one who you may recognize as Sheriff Truman [Michael Ontkean] from Twin Peaks and another who you may recognize as a fatter version of Beau Bridges, but is actually just Beau Bridges), Matt is expected to sell the land to a buyer per the terms of the trust's "law of perpetuity." Matt doesn't really seem fazed by the obscene amount of money he will receive from this deal as he already makes a sufficient income as a real estate lawyer. Plus, he has a philosophy about how he wants to raise his children: "Give your children enough to do something, not nothing."
Payne, consistent in his ability to set up glaring dichotomies, chooses the backdrop of Hawaii, a place that so many perceive as "paradise," to showcase the unfurling drama of Matt's life. All too aware of the irony of this collective impression people have of it, Matt notes (in a voiceover that is in keeping with the Payne approach to screenwriting):
"My friends think that just because we live in Hawaii, we live in paradise. We're all just out here sipping Mai Tais, shaking our hips, and catching waves. Are they insane? Do they think we're immune to life? How can they possibly think our families are less screwed up, our heartaches less painful?"
Dealing with his wife Elizabeth's (Patricia Hastie, who plays a very convincing coma victim for the entire film) recent boating accident, Matt must come to grips with the idea that he may very well be totally responsible for the well-being of his daughters, Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley)--a thought that shakes him to his very core. To loosely paraphrase his thought on the matter as he goes to bring Alexandra back home from boarding school to see her mother: "It is no surprise that one of my daughters lives on another island. Families in general are like islands--technically a whole, but each member is really its own individual archipelago, constantly drifting apart." Goddamn, Payne has a way with words, even though I'm misquoting them from memory.
Of course, apart from Clooney, the performance that has audience members (at least comically) relieved is that of Nick Krause, who plays the vacuous surfer dude, Sid. A friend of Alexandra's, Sid sees them all through on the journey to Elizabeth's parents' house, as well as to the vacation cottage of Elizabeth's paramour, Brian Speer (a somewhat wizened Matthew Lillard). As Matt learns the truth about his wife, albeit unwillingly, he starts to realize how broken his marriage really was toward the end. The only good that really comes of discovering his wife's adultery is that it brings him closer to his daughters. And that is usually the catch with a Payne film: The protagonist must endure massive amounts of pain (or Payne) before receiving a modicum of pleasure.