The phrase "slice of life" has been tossed around so haphazardly, for so long, that it's become something of a pejorative--the kind of descriptor that sounds alarm bells of laziness, or preciousness, or predictability. If considering only its broad strokes, Alexander Payne's new film The Descendants sounds as though it could easily fall into those traps; it is the story of a man wrestling with new responsibilities and old secrets as his wife lies on her deathbed. It's in the playing that the film finds its flavor--in Payne's unique ear for dialogue and tone, and in the keenly felt performances, particularly a leading turn by George Clooney that is among his finest work.
Matt King (Clooney) is an overworked husband and father of two. As the story begins, his wife is in a coma, the result of a boating accident; soon after, the doctors deliver the news that she's not going to recover, and that they must honor her "do not resuscitate" wishes. He's got a few days to round up those who might want to say goodbye, and to do so himself, and in a bit of unfortunate timing, he's also coming up on the deadline to make a decision about his extended family's giant patch of inherited land (he's the trustee).
Plus he's got to break the news to his daughters, 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller). The girls were always much closer to his wife, and Payne and Clooney are refreshingly okay with showing that, yes, he's really not a very good dad. He tends to say the wrong things, to get tough or soft at the wrong moments, and he probably lets Alexandra get way too involved in his quest to hunt down the guy he discovers his wife was having an affair with (though, in all fairness, Alexandria's the one who tells him about it).
Clooney proves himself more than up to the broad emotional demands of the role. After discovering her betrayal, he has a solo scene at his dying wife's hospital bed that's kind of a miniature version of Brando's centerpiece monologue in Last Tango, and nearly as revelatory--a scene powerful and prickly, with just a dash of gallows humor. It's a set piece, a footlights speech, but one that is set up and played organically and convincingly. Navigating the dramatic minefields of the screenplay (by Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash), Clooney is provided countless opportunities to overplay, and waves all of them off; the flatness of his voice in the opening narrations doesn't match his desperation, he shows but doesn't push his helplessness when he gets the death sentence, and a late scene where he chooses to let something go is jaw-dropping in the power of its simplicity. This is a magnificent piece of work, nicely orchestrated by a director who knows when to push in close and when to give the actor his space, and the early complaints from some critics of miscasting are just befuddling (the argument that he is too slick and good-looking to play a cuckolded family man are as shallow and out of touch with reality as those Knocked Up complaints).
Woodley, a talented young actor previously unknown to me, has nearly as many scenes as Clooney, and plays off him well; this is a tough, complicated role, and she's got a good handle on it. The supporting cast is filled with welcome faces like Beau Bridges and Judy Greer (she eases deftly and almost unperceptively from tragedy to comedy in her last scene), while Matthew Lillard holds his own with a turn that is natural and believable in a way he's seldom been.
Payne finds a nice incongruity between the Hawaiian setting (Phedon Papamichael's cinematography is casually picturesque) and what is easily his most downbeat story to date. He's not a filmmaker who is out to dazzle us with his inventiveness; we know the score going in to a scene like Matt's late night chat with Alexandria's dullard boyfriend (Nick Krause), and he doesn't try to pull out a surprise. It's all about how the scene is executed, when he chooses to push and pull. That modesty of ambition is probably the cause of the slight backlash to his last feature Sideways, seven long years ago--neither that picture nor his earlier works were intended as Oscar-Nominated Works of Cinema, but as shambling, low-key efforts in the vein of Paul Mazursky or Hal Ashby. The Descendants is a gentle movie, matter-of-fact in its emotions, unassuming in its laughs, and by the time it arrives at its last shot--a static medium-wide frame in which, strictly speaking, nothing much is happening--it has achieved a kind of easygoing perfection.