George Clooney and Shailene Woodley star in <em>The Descendants</em>.

George Clooney and Shailene Woodley star in The Descendants.

The Descendants

George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, and Beau Bridges star in a film written by Alexander Payne, Natt Faxon, and Jim Rash, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, and directed by Payne.

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.

For showtimes, check the Independent's movie listings, here.

To submit a comment on this article, email or visit our Facebook page. To submit information to a reporter, email

event calendar sponsored by:

Santa Barbara Rental Prices Have Skyrocketed Over the Last Five Years

The average rent for a South Coast studio is $1,553.

Trio Stops the Show at Board of Education

More than a dozen appeal to Santa Barbara Unified School District to maintain music classes and programs.

Santa Barbara District Attorney Endorses Villaraigosa for Governor

Joyce Dudley preferred the former Los Angeles mayor’s positions on crime and education.

San Marcos Principal Files Suit Against Santa Barbara Unified School District

Ed Behrens charges emotional and physical distress due to demotion.

City Water Use Hits 1958 Levels

Population was twice today's; revenue close to falling short of expenses.