Why do the best American directors take so long to release new movies these days? Has auteur theory just gone too mainstream? Take a look at the steady, magnificent output of Americans like Wilder, Ford, and Hawks in the pre-auteurist 30s, 40s, and 50s, and ask yourself if a guy like Alexander Payne really needs to take seven years in between high-quality entertainments. If I regret not having the six extra Payne movies that might exist if the director had a little more Billy Wilder in him, then I also take comfort that increased lulls don’t seem to hurt the quality of his new stuff when it finally does make it to the screen. As with most of the work put out by the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, David O. Russell, Bennett Miller, Spike Jonze, and Miranda July, Payne’s long-awaited new movie is well worth it. Which is not to say that The Descendants is fantastic (well, it kind of is), but that it’s one of those expert, finely crafted films that feels like a throwback to a (possibly imagined) time when it was the norm to focus on the emotions of believable characters.
Since he passed over casting him as the womanizing best friend in Sideways, Payne may have felt an extra impetus to put George Clooney front and center here as a wealthy Hawaiian landowner and lawyer attempting to reconnect with his daughters while his wife lays incapacitated in a hospital. If he would have been miscast as an over-the-hill cad, then Clooney is about as good as he gets as a troubled rich man, a character who is successful enough to be played by a movie star but still suffering enough to be interesting.
The movie opens with a self-aware voice over — Clooney’s Matt King explaining that life in Hawaii is not so tropically sunny for natives as it is for tourists. (For one thing, natives tend to see the surrounding paradise as mocking their problems rather than providing an escape from them.) King’s wife had her neck snapped in a boating accident. His younger daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), isn’t quite mature enough to understand that mommy might not wake up, yet she’s old enough to get in trouble for vicious texting at school. King’s older daughter, Alex (Shailene Woodley), is a developing alcoholic with an acidic mouth who knows exactly what her mother’s prospects are, and kind of doesn’t care.
Alex is smart and caustic, so she becomes her dad’s only sane ally while the list of vultures and backstabbers surrounding him grows. Some of his callous cousins are after a fortune in Hawaiian real estate, over which King presides; others are attacking him as the cause of his wife’s coma. There are young boys after Alex, angry mothers after Scottie, and younger men who’ve been involved with his wife. And there’s the wife herself, diagnosed as untreatable by her doctors and taking up valuable space in a crowded hospital. King is being assailed by all of the problems that come with having money and a family and trying to do the right things by them.
Payne certainly isn’t afraid to show that the upper class in America have issues as serious (to them) as anyone else. He makes the implicit statement that privilege often makes life all the more confusing and precarious for people who didn’t ask for it. Which isn’t to say Payne is out to defend them. Payne audaciously makes a sort-of villain out of a coma patient, without seeming to make fun of her. Most of the major characters take a turn haranguing King’s wife, who spends the entire movie frozen, supine, with a contorted grimace on her face. Part of the ethos of the movie goes: just because you’re privileged doesn’t mean life can’t bite you, nor that you’ll be saved from misery, which applies to King and his daughters as well as it does to his wife.
Time will tell just how prescient The Descendants really is. It’s certain to be one of the major movies of fall 2011, and I think it’s one of the strongest. But as with most movies that are content to be simply good without attempting to redefine the medium, it will most likely be overpraised. After winning a Best Director award for Sideways back in 2004, Payne said, “I think there may be a problem with a world in which making small, human and humorous films is ‘an achievement.’ It should be the norm.” Those are the words of a smart, talented pragmatist, but they should indicate a desire to work more often, not less: to increase the number of good movies people are likely to see. Payne’s long breaks in between projects only reinforce the false belief that good filmmaking is getting rarer.