Early in “The Descendants” — the latest movie from director Alexander Payne — we’re warned against being seduced by Hawaii’s abundant charms. The movie’s narrator — an increasingly troubled father played by George Clooney — cautions us not to be deceived by the scenery: People in Hawaii suffer as much as everyone else.
Clooney’s character speaks from experience: During the course of this deceptively relaxed and engaging movie, Clooney’s Matt King grapples with death, betrayal, parental angst and personal responsibility. In other words, “The Descendants” is a full-blodded movie, not a travelogue.
But before you reach for your handkerchief or begin wringing your hands in grief, know that the tone of “The Descendants” is anything but lugubrious. Payne manages the kind of neat trick that defines some of Hollywood’s best work: “The Descendants” can be generously entertaining without scraping all the emotional meat of its bones.
Let’s get the movie’s bona fides out of the way: Yes, “The Descendants” likely will show up on Oscar’s short list for best picture. Yes, Clooney probably will find himself among the nominees for best actor. Payne probably will win a best director nomination, as well as a nomination (along with his co-writers) for best-adapted screenplay. (Kaui Hart Hemmings wrote the novel on which the movie is based.)
There could be more Oscar nominations on tap for “The Descendants,” but you get the idea: “The Descendants” has been positioned to make a major splash as one of the year’s best big-screen endeavors, and — before we proceed — let me assure you that I’m not going to pull a 180 and tell you to forget all the hype and pre-opening accolades. Some of them are well deserved.
Clooney plays Matt King, a successful real-estate lawyer who hasn’t paid much attention to his wife or to his 17- and 10-year-old daughters. Of course, life is about to teach Matt a major lesson.
The trigger: Matt’s wife is involved in a boating accident that puts her into a coma from which she has no chance of recovering. Not surprisingly, Matt’s world turns upside down — both as a parent and as a husband. Matt also begins to discover that he may have had an entirely mistaken notion about the kind of life he’d been living.
The movie’s trailer reveals way too much, but I won’t say more about a screenplay in which Matt accumulates disasters large and small, even as we ignore his early-picture warning and are lulled into something like a state of Hawaiian ease.
Matt’s woes extend beyond worry about his wife’s medical condition. He’s also the trustee for a magnificent parcel of his family’s land in Kauai, unspoiled acreage that most of the relatives want to sell to a developer. They think they’re doing the right thing because they favor a local developer over an outsider.
Environmental issues aside, the heart of the story belongs to Clooney and to the actresses who play his daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller). Woodley, from TV’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” portrays a spiky, 17-year-old student. She’s difficult, and — perhaps as part of that difficulty — insists that her boyfriend (Nick Krause) accompany her everywhere. Krause’s Sid seems like a major dope — until he doesn’t.
Despite the problems she presents, Matt increasingly relies on his older daughter. Woodely gives a complex, layered performance. She’s playing a character who’s not fully mature, but she’s not a child, either. She’s in that most awkward of categories: an almost adult.
Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer find themselves in major supporting roles, with Greer perhaps having the better showcase, particularly in a scene near the movie’s end. Robert Forster makes a strong impression as Matt’s embittered father-in-law.
A word or two about Clooney: Clooney is a first-rank star, and he can’t check his stardom at the door when the cameras roll. But he deserves major credit for putting aside some of his trademark cool to play an emotionally rumpled guy who can be clueless, a man defined by what he doesn’t know.
“The Descendants” might be a shade too easy, considering some of the issues it raises, and like many good movies, it may be receiving more praise than it deserves. If so, it’s because Payne’s movie soars above most mainstream entertainment, offering us something welcome and rare: Movie characters behaving in ways that are touching, funny and sometimes even smart.
And, an afterthought: I could have chosen to review “Twilight: Breaking Dawn — Part I” for this space and probably attracted more attention. But that movie has so much built-in fan appeal that it hardly needs reviewing. The latest edition — directed by Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls”) — qualifies as the creepiest of all the “Twilight” movies, and I don’t necessarily mean that in a good way. By now, you either don’t care or already know that a still-human Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and the vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) marry and that Bella becomes pregnant in the series’ penultimate movie. After the nuptials, “Breaking Dawn” resolves into a waiting game in which the vampires try to talk Bella out of having a baby that’s growing so fast, it’s destroying her body. Moreover, werewolves have threatened to devour what they believe will be Bella’s evil spawn. If you stop to think about it — and I suggest you don’t — you may find a strange bias against sex in “Breaking Dawn,” which does offer some boldly vivid imagery (blood coursing through Bella’s veins) to go along with scenes of pure ridiculousness (wolves talking to one another in throaty growling English). The blood becomes a little more repulsive in this entry, which may seem exceptionally preposterous to anyone outside the ”Twilight” cult. But, then, no one outside that group is likely to venture into the movie anyway.