As George Clooney says in The Descendants...wait, I can't quote that at all.
Instead, here is a brief story about living in paradise.
I moved to a beach city outside LA recently. It's very nice; today, Sunday, Nov. 27, it broke 80 degrees. The man across the street from me has lived here nearly 40 years. I'm pretty sure you can see the ocean from his house. He says that, in those 40 years, he's been to the beach three times. To me, this is crazy. Not in the casual use of the word, either. I mean I think he should be scooped up in a butterfly net and terrorized by a nurse named after a tool until a silent giant hurtles an appliance through the nearest window. Just like is mandated by all mental institutions.
But the fact is, people who live in a vacation spot treat it much differently from visitors. If you lived in Donut Land you could hardly go eating donuts all day or pretty soon there wouldn't be anything left to walk on. If my neighbor spent all day at the beach, he wouldn't be able to live near it much longer. The Descendants takes place near far more idyllic beaches than those of LA, but for the locals, that hardly makes life one long vacation.
George Clooney lives in Honolulu and is the chief heir to a vast, pristine stretch of island land worth nearly half a billion dollars. But a boating accident has put his wife Patricia Hastie into a coma. As her condition worsens, he brings home teenage daughter Shailene Woodley, a former drug addict who deeply resents her dying mom.
That's because Hastie was cheating on the clueless Clooney. Deeply stung, he begins a search for the other man, bringing with him a motley crew of Woodley, her dopey boyfriend, and Clooney's wild youngest daughter.
The Descendants is directed and co-written by Alexander Payne, the man whose Sideways single-handedly turned merlot into a villain so heinous that grapes have since had to change their name to smileyfruits to dodge all the bad PR. Yet as a filmmaker, Payne has a knack for presenting people we all rightfully despise — overachieving high school students, snobby failed novelists, the elderly — and making them human and sympathetic.
Clooney gets the same treatment here. He and his slew of cousins are on the verge of selling their land, a deal that will make them all so rich they can all go buy their own private islands. Which they kind of already have, so I guess this is something of a lateral move. Anyway, Clooney is apparently not tops as a husband or a father, either, working long hours as a lawyer while leaving his inheritance untouched and his wife to boat around the waves.
Yet he's instantly sympathetic, and not just because the character's played by George Clooney, whose very smile could usher in world peace if he weren't selfishly making movies instead. Rather, it's because of his failures, his confusion, his indignities amongst a pack of shallow, angry people who don't know what they're doing, either.
Which isn't that hard to pull off for your protagonist (particularly when, as is the case here, he does a bundle of narration to further clue you into his headspace). Much trickier is making almost your entire main cast feel fleshed-out, whether it's Woodley's lunkhead boyfriend Nick Krause flashing sudden depth or Clooney's father-in-law Robert Forster (who blames Clooney for Hastie's coma and generally comes off tougher and meaner than a drunken kangaroo) collapsing into vulnerability.
This plays out in scenes that are often blackly funny, such as when Clooney yells bitterly at his coma-faced wife, then reprimands his daughter for doing the exact same thing a moment later. But in tone, The Descendants shifts between comedy and depression as easily as it does between Hawaii's gorgeous landscapes and its muddy, leaf-choked back roads. What? There's nothing confusing about that statement. I'm saying it does so very easily. As easily as your mom, if that helps. Wait, that's an adverb. As easily as your mom has inappropriate relations with men.
The Descendants is a little looser in focus than Payne's best work, and we're never given a chance to connect with Hastie, who's ostensibly at its center. Still, it's funny and moving, frequently viciously critical of its characters, yet always aware they're fully human, too, too complicated to be dismissed by a single flaw. It's not Sideways, sure — but few things are.