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Pupukahi I Holomua

The Descendants (2011)

Fox Searchlight Pictures

“The Descendants” is at a serious disadvantage when held up against other films by Alexander Payne. But that’s only because Jim Taylor’s whip-smart dialogue is noticeably absent this time (although he is still onboard as a producer). Once you get past the screenplay’s higgledy-piggledy treatment of Kaui Hart Hemmings’s source novel, the film ultimately proves another success for Mr. Payne. To wit, he convincingly pulls off the central conceit that a woman in her right mind would actually cheat on George Clooney with Matthew Lillard, which is no small feat if you really think about it.

Mr. Clooney plays Matt King, whose sprawling extended family has inherited parcels on Kauai from its ancestors who were Hawaiian royals and missionaries and plans to sell the unblemished property to developers. Not taking the bequest for granted, Matt is a workaholic attorney known for being stingy. He is also oblivious to his wife Elizabeth’s (Patricia Hastie) extramarital activities and his young daughters’ rebelliousness until a boating accident renders Elizabeth comatose. Despite having his hands full with two disobedient daughters, Matt is hell-bent on tracking down Elizabeth’s paramour, Brian Speer (Mr. Lillard). Even with his leading-man good looks intact, Mr. Clooney manages to completely purge his usual suaveness and embody a middle-aged cuckold.

The search mission and stakeout unexpectedly turn into a bonding sojourn for the father and daughters — à la Mr. Payne’s “Sideways” — and also force the reluctant heir to reassess his priorities and the looming land deal. But Mr. Payne and his co-writers, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, never succinctly connect the dots and articulate the causations the way that Mr. Taylor could. The difference is that Mr. Taylor might have drawn more of a distinction between Matt’s vindictiveness and honoring tradition in his final decision-making, and elevated a meditative slice of life into a powerful masterpiece. Still, Mr. Payne’s undeniable knack for naturalism makes “The Descendants” a wholly persuasive and heartfelt experience.


Opens on Nov. 16 in New York and Los Angeles and on Jan. 27, 2012 in the United Kingdom.

Directed by Alexander Payne; written by Mr. Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings; director of photography, Phedon Papamichael; edited by Kevin Tent; production design by Jane Ann Stewart; costumes by Wendy Chuck; produced by Jim Burke and Mr. Payne; released by Fox Searchlight. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: George Clooney (Matt King), Shailene Woodley (Alexandra King), Beau Bridges (Cousin Hugh), Robert Forster (Scott Thorson), Judy Greer (Julie Speer), Matthew Lillard (Brian Speer), Nick Krause (Sid), Amara Miller (Scottie King), Mary Birdsong (Kai Mitchell), Rob Huebel (Mark Mitchell) and Patricia Hastie (Elizabeth King).


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