When last we caught wind of work by writer/director Alexander Payne, Omaha’s finest contribution to cinema, he was romping around God’s happy acres in the Santa Ynez Valley for the midlife-crisis serio-comedy Sideways. In the process, Payne inadvertently helped buff the area’s expanding buzz as one of America’s new “wine country” destinations. After a seven-year break from feature filmmaking, Payne returns with The Descendants, another impressive number about trouble in paradise — this time, the dreamland of Hawai‘i, the chamber of commerce of which doesn’t necessarily need as much help luring visitors.
Logically enough, The Descendants, based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel, is very much a “family film.” It’s a circuitous, mildly haunted, blackly comic, and ultimately sweet saga about past generations’ legacies toyed with by greedy descendants, and the weirdly thickening plot unfolding around one of the story’s central-yet-mute figures, a comatose mother of a modern household. George Clooney does what he does best, mainly keeping his handsome cool (looking evermore like Marcello Mastroianni these days) amid the storm of a story involving suddenly raising two daughters in a motherless setting.
At the root of it all, this becomes business as usual in the land of Payne. Finding the right balance and irreverent imbalance between elements in a film has been his specialty since his early films based in his Omaha hometown, Citizen Ruth, Election, and About Schmidt. Seen as a surprisingly coherent whole, the Payne filmography so far hangs together, held true to an artistic vision that somehow goes to dark places with a sense of mischief and a warm heart beneath it all.
On the beauty side of the equation, we are faced with the ravishing environs of different Hawaiian islands, particularly Kaua‘i — and more particularly, an idyllic and vast, unspoiled stretch of land that is up for selling and potential development spoilage. From the musical perspective, the rippling sweetness of indigenous slack-key guitar music throughout the film, no matter the dark turns and jabs in the storyline, makes for a reassuring sensory subplot — and an unspoken source of hope.
We should all be so lucky to have a lilting soundtrack to lives complicated by emotionally prickly and angsty trappings. Especially by Hollywood’s often formulaic standards, The Descendants is a wonderfully strange but also humane comic outing, teeming with beauty, love, pain, and the ashes-to-ocean circularity of life.