Satire requires coldheartedness. A satirist must see the hypocrisies that most of us willfully ignore or ignorantly overlook, and fearlessly throw them back into our faces. Alexander Payne is an excellent satirist -- Election and Citizen Ruth take no prisoners in their jaundiced explorations of American political and social mores. But The Descendants, his third movie in a row in which he’s actually tried to tug heartstrings while still playing to his instincts, reveals how hard it is for someone so gifted at cynicism to let genuine tenderness into his film.
George Clooney stars as Matt King, a successful Hawaiian businessman whose wife Elizabeth goes into a coma after a boating accident. As his wife remains in critical condition, he pulls his rebellious teen daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) out of her expensive private boarding school so she can be nearby and help take care of her elementary-age sister Scottie (Amara Miller). While doctors assure Matt that his wife will not recover, he learns that she was unfaithful to him. Filled with a tsunami of roiling emotions, Matt hits the road with his daughters and Alexandra’s dim boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) to confront the other man, Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard).
Payne is most comfortable with discomfort -- his comedy often relies on embarrassment, and The Descendants is no exception. When Matt first learns of his wife’s affair from Alexandra, he puts on flip-flops and does a long, silly-looking run to his best friends’ house in order to verify it. It’s as if Payne doesn’t trust real drama and has to undercut it at almost every turn. He enjoys mocking his characters, and while he’s got a mordant-enough sense of humor to earn laughs that way, this often results in undercutting real pain and suffering. The clearest example of this comes in a climactic scene in which Brian’s wife Julie (a flawless Judy Greer in an award-worthy supporting turn) arrives at Elizabeth’s bedside to address the fact that this comatose woman was sleeping with her husband. Greer gives a raw and powerful performance, but instead of letting her have her moment, the scene cuts her off -- as if mocking her for having feelings -- before shifting gears and letting Matt have a tender good-bye with his wife.
Payne also betrays his unease with earnestness in the scene in which everyone finally fills in Scottie on what’s happening with her mother. He handles it in a montage without any dialogue, so that we don’t have to be depressed by the young girl’s response. From another director, such a move might come off as tactful, but Payne’s best movies don’t have any tact at all -- that’s their strong suit.
To be sure, there are good things in The Descendants: The acting is uniformly excellent, the Hawaiian locations are gorgeous, and there are moments when Payne’s instinct to make a situation more awkward heightens the dramatic tension -- when Matt finally comes face-to-face with Brian, we really don’t know what he’s going to do. It’s certainly a good movie, but, with a different director, The Descendants might have been a better one.