The Descendants finds Alexander Payne caught between a rock and a hard place; dealing with, by far, his most ambitious thematic material yet, in which nearly every scene, to some capacity, deals with jilted, multi-millionaire father/husband Matt King's (George Clooney) dying wife, a confrontation of her infidelity, and what that may suggest for Matt's teetering sense of worth and individualistic purpose, there's little room to claim Payne's opting to play it safe - he's undeniably dealing in weighty themes, approaching each scene with a deftly cynical hand, obscuring and problematizing any sense of cues for easy laughs (the trailer displays the most obvious of these moments). Though the material remains vaguely/adjacently close to a sitcom-esque realm, Payne does an admirable job of steering clear from obvious pratfalls, wrangling excellent performances from Clooney, Shailene Woodley as conflicted daughter Alexandra, and Robert Forster as a begrudging father-in-law. By all conventional accounts, Payne's sensibilities are well-guided, walk a fine line between offensive and placating, never falling too sternly on either side of the line. In other words: he has nuance.
Unfortunately for Payne, the script itself, yields very little; the material is inherently flawed, in that it implicitly ignores the issue of class or, at least, obfuscates its characters' titular, unearned privilege by reducing their dilemmas to unconvincing humanist pap, though Payne does his best to understate these moments (namely Clooney's intended, penultimate announcement that he doesn't wish to sell his family's numerous acres of inherited Hawaiian land). Moreover, early voice-over work nearly tanks the film immediately, as when Clooney claims: "Everybody thinks Hawaii is all-day sunshine and paradise, but the divorces sting just as much and the cancer kills just as fast." Such bittersweet-cute reductionism appeals to the film's overall sense of guilt, which cannot be assuaged merely by asserting remorse, much less from the vantage point of a character whose humanity allegedly comes from his familial interests, seeing his daughters avoid harm, etc. Whenever it's necessary for Payne and company to confront these issues head-on, they balk in favor of re-affirmative pandering, much in the same way that The Kids Are All Right and Little Miss Sunshine use stereotyping/caricature as a means of abstaining defeat - there is nothing subversive about these films. In fact, Payne's usage of Hawaii isn't more than a click or two away from the Peter Segal/Adam Sandler trainwreck 50 First Dates (those who will immediately scoff at this suggestion should be reminded that Payne co-wrote the screenplay for Sandler's I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry). Comparisons to the Farrelly Brothers wouldn't be out of line either, particularly in the way background, bit parts, and passerby characters are played by non-actors, who are treated with equal parts "ain't they cute" admiration and condescension. Finally, the film's closing scene, in which the family trio come together, under a blanket, in front of the TV, is perhaps the most risible ending since Clooney's previous Michael Clayton.
What's perplexing about all of this contrast is that Payne had a hand in the script, and likely a significant one. Yet, his comedic tone and sensibilities as director seem completely at odds with his touches as writer, a conflicting wound that inevitably bleeds The Descendants dry. Nevertheless, Payne has assembled a film that, in spite of all of its plentiful flaws, gets as close as any film that comes to mind in addressing the ever expanding generation gap, one that, paradoxically, may suggest the kids are now more sophisticated than adults, as Clooney's character almost plays protege to his savvy daughter. Without making these scenarios gratingly obvious, Payne still can't shake a greater sense of insignificance, that his barely afloat material yields pathos beyond simplistic ironies and normative familial anxieties.