The director Alexander Payne has, since 1996, created four very good films that have relied on at least one recurring theme: the comic pathos of characters who usually don't realize how pathetic they are.
In "Citizen Ruth" (1996), Laura Dern's paint-huffing homeless woman thinks she's won the lottery when the forces for and against abortion start a modest bidding war for her unborn; in "Election" (1999), Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon get into a sordid battle over a quotidian high-school ritual; in "About Schmidt" (2002), Jack Nicholson's undistinguished retiree tries to find himself late in life with the aid of a climate-controlled recreational vehicle motoring down the highway; in "Sideways" (2004), a lonely writer puts more effort into identifying arcane vintages than the interests of a beautiful woman.
In Payne's latest film, which took a long time arriving, we wait with baited breath for the next example of moral infirmity, or half-embarrassing, half-side-splitting obtuseness, or unsuspecting point of human weakness, and find ... George Clooney? Handsome, dignified, clever, gallant George Clooney? Playing a character whose big problem is whether to sell 25,000 or so acres of Hawaiian property he inherited?
"The Descendants" casts Clooney as Matt King, a distant descendant of Hawaii's last living royals (they mated with the white man). He's forced to figure out what to do with his patrimony and two foul-mouthed daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) left for him to raise alone by a lovely wife (Patricia Hastie), recently sent into a permanent coma in a boating accident. Sure, Clooney's King has a lot on his plate, including the expectations of his idle relatives. He also finds out early in the film that his wife was having an affair before her accident. But he's still George Clooney. He's still a King by any sense of the word, who's fabulously wealthy. And lives in Hawaii. Among beautiful sand, surf and women.
Sure, there's an irony, or a point, or maybe just a fact, buried in the film, that a person like this can still experience loss and doubt amid the paradise of Oahu. And? The worst thing that's going to happen to King, no matter how the film ends, is that he disappoints some people and gets remarried to a really amazing and beautiful woman half his age.
"The Descendants" at least is about realistic characters dealing with (in this case semi-) realistic problems. But it contains nothing remotely close to the gloriously comic pathos of Payne's other films. And the reason seems quite easy to figure out. If "The Descendants" feels like half an Alexander Payne film, it's because it sort of is. Every other movie he's directed has been co-written with a man named Jim Taylor. This one wasn't, and is the first one with a noticeable tonal shift.
Unfortunately the movie's problems don't end with a lack of pathetic characters. There are other obvious voids, including an identifiable complaint by the main character that warrants a two-hour story about him. When it comes down to it, Matt King really has no big problems, at least none the script is willing to confront head-on.
For one thing, the screenwriters — including collaborators Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, with Payne on board to help them adapt a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings — never establish why the audience should care about what King ultimately does with the trust. Should he sell the land or shouldn't he? If he does, it will be turned into resorts. If he doesn't, the land will remain unused private property. Where's the scene that tells us which option is best, or ties the futility of the decision to King's life?
King Clooney's other problems aren't developed any more effectively. His children are little monsters, but, as if this were a black comedy (which it isn't), their character issues are never dealt with. King spends most of the film on the hunt for his wife's illicit lover, a real-estate developer (Matthew Lillard) who stands to profit tangentially from the land deal — but their confrontation is anticlimactic.
Unless he just wants to make money and complain about petty problems on a tropical island like Matt King, Payne needs to stop all the executive producing and Oscar-laurels resting and start writing about Midwesterners again — with Jim Taylor. We desperately await the next comic-drama masterpiece that would result. (R) 115 min. S