The Descendants

Rated 3.0

As director Alexander Payne’s movies have migrated westward geographically—from the Nebraska of Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt to California’s Central Coast for Sideways, to Hawaii for The Descendants—his edge has softened. By now, adapting Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, Payne risks disappearing up his own sunset. “Paradise can go fuck itself,” George Clooney says in voiceover early on, but the whole point is that he doesn’t really mean that. Clooney plays a Hawaiian lawyer having trouble hanging loose on account of wondering what to do with a huge unspoiled coastal property that’s been in his family for generations, plus the impending death of a wife who betrayed him (Patricia Hastie), and the renewed responsibility of raising their daughters (Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller). Although it takes some throat-clearing (or at least some throaty voiceover narration) to set this story up, Payne does settle into a pleasing ratio of humor and heaviness. This is a grief-soaked and gently manipulative film, but also buoyantly humane, with Clooney as subtle and strong as he’s ever been.