There's an utterly schmaltzy, tear infested trainwreck of a movie lying in wait under the cover of Alexander Payne's new drama. Just look at what we have here: Comatose, dying, wife and mother - check. Infidelity and its effect on a family - check. Man dealing with how to reconnect with, and raise his daughters - check. A family property dispute - check. See what I mean?
Miraculously, Payne uses those elements to craft a move that doesn't have a single moment that feels manipulative, or any emotion that rings untrue. Maybe it's the Hawaiian setting, though George Clooney's Matt King would likely disagree with me on that count. In his opening monologue (Payne sure uses a lot of voiceovers doesn't he? I seem to remember the climax of Election featuring 15 minutes of interwoven voiceover) Matt vents his frustration at people who think his Hawaiian life is every bit of the paradise the postcards make it out to be. As the movie starts, his life is far far away from reflecting any kind of idyllic bliss: he's drifted away from his family only to find himself pulled back with his wife's accident leaving her comatose. As he struggles to figure out how to deal with his girls, he's hit with the news that his wife isn't going to wake up - and that she was cheating on him with a man she was in love with. Meanwhile, he is the sole decision maker in a family property dispute that is closely being followed by what seems to be the entire state of Hawaii: the family wants commercial development, the denizens want it to be left alone.
The Descendants works perfectly because it gets one central idea right - empathy. This is a warm movie, one that deeply cares about its various characters, that refuses to paint them into stereotyped corners based on the archetypes they represent. Matt genuinely wants to do good by his family, but is clearly at a loss, and stoops to asking his older daughter's friend for advice on how to deal with them. Those daughters of his recognize the effort he's making and stand up for him when the time comes. His bitter father-in-law is allowed a moment of catharsis; the wife's lover is allowed to have his say; and we even get to meet his wife, to complete (and complicate) our picture of the tangled situation.
George Clooney gets to continue his remarkable streak with this performance, which allows him to crumble and strengthen before our eyes, a remarkably vulnerable performance from a man whose screen persona is often the epitome of suave and self-assured otherwise. Shailene Woodley as his older daughter is an absolute revelation, lighting up her scenes with assured grace. The Descendants comes into the Oscar season with 5 nominations, including picture-director-actor combo, fresh with a Golden Globe win for Best Drama. I don't know if it'll take the prize - it doesn't feel showy enough for the big win - but it represents a fine addition in the race.