It's pretty safe to assume that when Alexander Payne makes a film it's going to be high on the list of Oscar hopefuls even before it has been seen by an audience. That has certainly been the case with The Descendants, Payne's first film since 2004's adapted screenplay Oscar winning Sideways. With its launch at Telluride and subsequent well received screenings at TIFF, The Descendants looks like a lock for nominations for adapted screenplay (for Payne with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash), directing, best picture, and you'd be hard pressed not to call the film's star George Clooney the early front runner for best actor.
Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian real estate lawyer who spends more time at the office than with his wife or two daughters, none of whom he seems to have a very good handle on how to connect with. When a boating accident leaves his wife in a coma, Matt is forced to assume the role of single parent. His reconnection with his elder teenage daughter (played gracefully by Shailene Woodley) leads to doubts in his wife's fidelity, launching an entertaining adventure for Matt, his two daughters, and his daughter's absurdly dim witted boyfriend to discover just what Matt's wife has been up to.
The film's title (at least partially) refers to Matt's heritage as a descendant of Hawaiian King Kamehameha. Family and political drama surrounding the potential sale of an enormous piece of land passed down through King's family makes up the film's secondary plot and serves as a particularly interesting element of the film in the role that Hawaii plays in the story. Payne has infused an impressive amount of detail of contemporary Hawaiian culture from dress to politics that adds a layer to the film rarely seen and quite enjoyable.
Payne's signature storytelling style is again on display in this latest work. Clooney plays up the physical humor to perfection, falling in line with Payne protagonists Broderick, Nicholson and Giamatti with ease. Payne's script expertly juggles humor, tragedy and sincere emotion with each element playing equal importance. But what is most impressive is Payne's ability to make it such an enjoyable journey. This film is nothing if not a crowd pleaser and it's ultimately pleasing to have another offering from such a talented and unique voice in cinema.