THERE ARE, perhaps, more identifiable figures in contemporary cinema than the members of an exceedingly rich family who are about to become even richer. The Descendants is about the Kings, a well-off Hawaiian family that's about to sell a huge chunk of unspoiled paradise to a developer. More specifically, it's about Matt King (George Clooney), the patriarch upon whose shoulders that decision rests—and also a man whose wife is in a potentially deadly coma, whose rebellious teenage daughter (Shailene Woodley) is less than impressed with his parenting, and whose life seems to be slipping from his grasp with every moment.
There is, on the surface, a lot that's great about The Descendants—beginning with Clooney and Woodley's fantastic performances, and spreading to smaller, affecting touches: The Kings' Hawaii, for example, is hardly the stuff of travel brochures. The heavy sky looms above, gray and foreboding, as life—like life everywhere else—trudges on. But below that surface, there isn't much.
The Descendants is the first full-length film Alexander Payne has directed since 2004's Sideways, a movie that nobody except your mom thought was as good as it was made out to be. Like Sideways, there's a wearying sense throughout The Descendants that Payne's not quite as deft as he thinks he is: While Clooney and Woodley bring heft to their characters, just about everyone else in the film flits in and out like yapping cartoon characters, hamming and weeping and taking for granted we'll care. (Two exceptions: in parts entirely too small, Beau Bridges and Robert Forster show up and are entirely awesome.) There's a near-overwhelming sense of self-satisfaction throughout the Kings' drama—of Payne connecting the dots of affluent malaise a bit too easily, a bit too glibly. The profundities aren't that profound, the high stakes feel low, and not even overcast skies can shake the sense that everything, in the end, is gonna be okay for the Kings.