Looking at the films of writer-director Alexander Payne, we can see them grow increasingly kinder and gentler, from the savage, nastily funny Election (1999) to the somewhat more humane character study About Schmidt (2002) to the warmer tones of Sideways (2004), with its sunny shots of people sitting under trees drinking wine. But even the life-affirming humanism of Sideways had its depressive, absurdist shadows. The Descendants is a similar mixture of the sentimental and the darkly comic; while I still prefer the sharp edges of Payne’s early work and wish he’d revisit them (will he ever again make a film as good as Election?) I’m happy to see the persistence of that darkly comic sensibility, the cloud in Payne’s otherwise sunny sky. It’s that cloud—which takes a number of different shapes in The Descendants, such as the screenplay’s blithe use of what might be called “vulgar” language—that keeps the film from becoming another version of Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air (2009), which attempted to glide on George Clooney's charisma and treated its heavy themes simplistically. That film was too easy, too slick; every beat felt calculated, whereas The Descendants moves at a relaxed, unhurried pace—Payne allows his characters space to breathe instead of always shoving them on to the next scene. That’s something you don’t see much in Hollywood films these days, most of which seem hysterically afraid of losing their audience’s attention. Clooney, too, is given deeper and richer notes than usual to sound here, and his performance is lovely in a kind of sad, warm way. (The young actors who play his daughters, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller, are also impressive; their characters feel recognizable and nicely rounded.)
So this is probably one of the better films that will come out of Hollywood this year: Payne’s work is still head and shoulders above that of most other mainstream writers and directors, and he’s gotten a great performance out of Clooney. That said, one can’t help but feel with some disappointment that Payne has traded in his best gifts—his ear for the smarminess and self-righteousness of middle America, his snappy editing rhythms, his biting satire—for a less aggressive, more middlebrow aesthetic. Previously, his main characters were anti-heroes: sad sacks, weasels, ethically compromised at best and pathetic at worst. Clooney’s Matt King is a cuckold and a floundering parent, but he emerges victorious (with that name, how could he not?). Payne’s use of voiceover narration was also heavily ironic and often very funny in Election and About Schmidt, because there was a disconnect between the ideas being espoused by the characters in voiceover and those of Payne as the filmmaker. In other words, Payne’s camera in those films stood at an ironic distance from his subject matter. In The Descendants (as in Sideways, but to a somewhat lesser extent) that distance collapses; we see Payne’s irony give way to sincerity and earnestness—and that really is a loss worth mourning.