You’ll believe a man can fly!” ran the ad campaign for the original Christopher Reeve Superman. How quaint that sounds today, when movies try to make us believe in far wilder things: in planet-killing asteroids, in automobiles that transform into giant robots, in a hundred kinds of superheroes — and now, with Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, in the idea that a woman would cheat on George Clooney with Matthew Lillard.
If the latter name doesn’t ring a bell, then you probably weren’t a teenager in the late 1990s, when Lillard — long of body and rubbery of face, like a faintly demonic Gumby — played supporting roles in the Scream franchise and various Freddie Prinze Jr. vehicles. But one detail should tell you everything you need to know about his sex appeal (or rather, lack thereof): His career peaked when he played Shaggy in 2002’s live-action Scooby-Doo.
Payne, the man who gave us the peerless Election, has made a habit of repurposing underappreciated actors and casting against type. In About Schmidt, he turned Jack Nicholson into a Midwestern sad sack. In Sideways, he made an unlikely leading man out of Paul Giamatti, let the B-movie queen Virginia Madsen finally prove that she could act, and mined comedy and pathos from the sitcom star Thomas Haden Church.
The Lillard-Clooney combination, though, is a bridge too far. Or rather, casting Clooney as a hapless cuckold is a bridge too far. The Descendants asks him to play Matt King, the well-meaning but weak scion of an old Hawaii clan, who’s modestly successful as a lawyer but ineffectual as a husband and a father. While he manages the disposition of the 25,000 unspoiled acres of Hawaiian coast that he co-owns with his cousins (all of whom trace their ancestry, and their wealth, back to a Victorian-era marriage between a native princess and an Anglo-Saxon arriviste), his daughters, 10 and 17, are growing up bratty and dysfunctional, and his vivacious wife is planning to leave him for Lillard’s grinning real-estate agent.
This is the sort of role that a more rumpled, lived-in thespian — think Philip Seymour Hoffman, as an example — could inhabit in his sleep. Clooney is a game actor and a good one, and he does his best to bury his charisma for the part, clattering around in boat shoes and a bad haircut, letting his kids walk all over him, and doing his best impersonation of a well-off beta male. But he’s still George Clooney, with the chin and the smile and the movie-star sheen, and no matter how hard he works, it feels like we’re watching Cary Grant in a part meant for Jack Lemmon.
It’s too bad, because the story in which he finds himself (taken from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings) is a perfect showcase for Payne’s distinctive tragicomic style. Payne is both a satirist and a humanist: In his movies, film critic David Edelstein has noted, “mockery and empathy seesaw, the balance precarious,” and we can find ourselves laughing at a character one moment and crying for him the next.
The source of the tears in The Descendants is the jet-skiing accident that throws King’s wife into a coma, forcing Clooney’s character to take real responsibility for his children, face the possibility that he’s about to become a widower, and — after his older daughter (Shailene Woodley, beautiful and brilliant in the part) blurts out the real reason she was fighting so much with her mother — realize that he’s been betrayed by a woman who’s now at death’s door. The source of the laughter is the element of farce in King’s subsequent attempt to reclaim his manhood, which requires him to contend with his wife’s bullying dad (Robert Forster), his older daughter’s insufferable stoner boyfriend (Nick Krause), his various grasping cousins (including Beau Bridges as a long-haired tropical sleaze), and finally his wife’s lover, who of course turns out to have a wife (Judy Greer, rescued from a lifetime of romantic-comedy supporting roles) and children of his own.
As funny as they are, these misadventures are a bit rambling and a bit predictable, and there were times when I thought that Payne needed a little more acid and a little less generosity. “Paradise can go [bleep] itself,” Clooney’s character says of Hawaii at the beginning of the movie, but in the end a sunnier and more uplifting spirit wins out over the hints of spiritual torpor and tropical decay.
Still, uplift has its uses, and The Descendants takes its tragedies seriously enough that the concluding harmonies feel earned rather than forced. This is not Payne’s best film: I’d rank it slightly below Sideways and well below Election. But there’s a lot of talent at work here, and the finished product is very much worth seeing. You’ll just need to suspend your disbelief, or else close your eyes from time to time and imagine that Matt King isn’t being embodied by George Clooney.