The film stars George Clooney as Matt King, a land magnate living in Hawaii whose wife Liz (Patricia Hastie) is involved in a boating accident, leaving her in a coma. Matt finds himself having to care for his two daughters, seventeen-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley) and ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), by himself for the first time in years, whilst at the same time negotiating the sale of a pristine plot of land inherited through his family and dealing with a few unwelcome truths about exactly where his marriage was prior to the accident.
The Descendants is, simply put, a film that regularly exudes excellence. Payne is in complete control throughout, constructing the audience's relationship with each of the central players carefully. The script is tight and always authentic. His presentation of the Hawaiian islands as the film's setting is also pitch-perfect to the story's needs. Payne captures the beauty and vibrance of life on the islands whilst at the same time, through notably mundane but expertly crafted shots of Hawaiian suburbia, echoing the sentiment of Clooney's character at the start of the film that "paradise can go fuck itself".
The performances of the cast as a whole are very strong. Woodley and Miller never put across hackneyed Hollywood stereotypes of children, giving refreshingly genuine performances. Woodley in particular deserves praise for revealing layer upon layer within Alex's character; starting off the film as a wayward brat beyond control, Woodley gives Alex more and more depth throughout showing her developing maturity and support for her father through an incredibly difficult time.
Clooney leads things superbly, showing yet again why he is one of the most dependable leading men in contemporary cinema. His performance finds itself somewhere between Intolerable Cruelty's Miles Massey and Up In The Air's Ryan Bingham, with just a hint of Everett McGill from O Brother Where Art Thou? in the film's more overtly comic scenes - nobody does running in flip-flops quite like Clooney. Much like the leading male characters in Payne's previous works, Matt King is simultaneously sympathetic and flawed: we feel immensely for the things that are happening to him, whilst at the same time can't help but feel that most of them have in an indirect way been caused by him at least in part. Clooney strikes the balance perfectly; King is very much an ordinary person dealing with extremely trying circumstances, but Clooney's performance makes him consistently compelling.
If there is a fault to The Descendants, it is linked back to my opening point. Whilst both the drama and comedy, when presented discretely, are of high quality, there are also times when they make uncomfortable bedfellows. Alex's friend Sid (Nick Krause) provides some unsatisfying examples of this in the first half of the film and feels somewhat like he's wandered out of an Adam McKay film. Thankfully the character settles down nicely in the second half, but jarring moments of humour and extreme pathos still crop up every so often.
Ultimately, however, The Descendants is far more success than failure. There really is a great deal to appreciate here, and whilst there are seriously emotional moments throughout, the film is immensely satisfying and highly polished. At the time of writing, Clooney is highly tipped to pick up the Best Actor award at this year's Oscars; should he do so, it'll be a win heartily deserved.