Warning: This isn’t so much a review of The Descendants as a discussion of why it didn’t quite “do it” for me. So I’m assuming that anyone who reads this has already seen the film. In other words: GIANT HONKING SPOILERS AHEAD.
Let me start by giving my Alexander Payne bona fides here: He’s on my shortlist of favorite working directors, and I consider Election and Sideways to be two of my all-time favorite films.
One thing that Payne does so well is give us complex, defiantly unlovable, but impossible not to care about characters. He creates these great American archetypes that nonetheless are thrillingly specific. I’m talking about Miles in Sideways, whose supreme intellectual superciliousness is matched only by his crippling insecurity; or Election’s Tracy Flick, that teacher’s pet on steroids with her crazed politician’s grin; or the regret-fueled everyman, beset by that peculiar American combination of stoicism and mawkishness, of About Schmidt.
But how to sum up the Clooney’s Matt King in The Descendants? He’s sort of a good guy; sort of a good father; he sort of cares about his...