The comedy of male inadequacy is Alexander Payne's gift to film. He has made the subject his own to an almost lacerating degree – Matthew Broderick's threatened schoolteacher in Election, Jack Nicholson's peevish pensioner in About Schmidt, Paul Giamatti's failed writer (and flailing drinker) in his last film, Sideways. Payne sees these men for the pathetic specimens they are, but they are never just pathetic; at some point they begin to understand that, despite their shortcomings, they are capable of fine feeling too. Their journey is booby-trapped with upsets and humiliations – one might call it Payneful – but they do get through it.
The story goes that the studio tried to get George Clooney cast in Sideways. Payne resisted, and you feel very glad that he did. It's not just that Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church were unimprovable as the mismatched friends; it's also that Payne could save up the star name for something better suited to his talent. That something is The Descendants, in which Clooney locates a character interestingly poised between baffled decency and profound hurt. He plays Matt King, a Hawaiian lawyer and landowner who's been blindsided by fate: his wife, seriously injured in a boating accident, lies in a coma, and the doctor has told him that she may never wake up. Matt must help his two daughters through the crisis, though being (in his own words) "the back-up parent, the understudy" he's got some catching up to do. Ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and sulky teenager Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) aren't going to make it easy for him. "Did you just spank me?" says Alex, half-aghast, half-amused at his tentative bottom tap, and sure enough he never tries it again.
For Matt, sorrows come, as Shakespeare observed, "not single spies, but in battalions". In between visits to the hospital he discovers that his wife was having an affair, a fact shocking enough without the extra reminder of how far he's taken his eye off the ball. And talking of shocks, have a look at Clooney's running style, all knees and elbows as he hotfoots it round to his neighbours to confirm that horrible bit of news. It's an indication of his willingness to look silly, just as his running obsessive in Burn after Reading showed him willing to look empty-headed. Payne, though, gives the actor some great moments to offset his ungainliness, sometimes by simply holding the camera on his face as he absorbs the extent of the mess he's in. Late in the film, standing alone at his wife's bedside, Clooney carries off one of the most moving scenes in his career, voice almost broken as he holds in his grief. It's a sensitive and mature characterisation of a man who's been found wanting in both sensitivity and maturity.
The curious thing is that The Descendants doesn't match up to Clooney's performance. In previous films, Sideways in particular, Payne hits on a tone that mingles drollery with ruefulness, until you can't tell the two apart. Here, those elements have separated, and we can see the joins between the comedy of dysfunction and the drama of grieving. A subplot concerns Matt's ownership of a lucrative parcel of unspoilt land that's been in his family for generations. A swarm of relatives, led by his cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), are preparing for a windfall once the estate is sold to developers – all they need is for Matt, as chief trustee, to sign off on the deal. His family look a jolly bunch, but we are forewarned that their flowery shirts belie a flinty business sense. The confrontation the movie builds to should offer some fireworks; that it doesn't looks rather feeble.
There's also an uncertainty in some areas of characterisation. Alex's stoner boyfriend, Sid (Nick Krause), makes such an obnoxious first impression that when Matt's grumpy father-in-law (Robert Forster) punches his head you want to cheer. I'm not sure if that's meant to be his chastening moment, but thereafter Sid becomes a family ally, and even has a thoughtful conversation with Matt. Again, instead of integrating elements Payne here sets them out one after another – first Sid is stupid and rude, then he's charming and likeable. It doesn't really work. I also didn't buy Matthew Lillard as the cuckolding lover, still too much the wild-eyed fratboy of Scream to be quite credible as an adult. The script, by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, adapts a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, though it wisely dumps the voiceover narration after a while. It feels somewhat heavy-handed in dealing with the emotional turnarounds, and even a little off in the timing: when the bitter father-in-law upbraids Matt in the hospital, there's a long beat before Alex jumps to her dad's defence.
The Descendants is a frustrating experience, because all the great things about Payne – his urbane irony, his wrong-footing wit, his brilliance with actors – are present but not properly gelling. Alongside Clooney's performance, Shailene Woodley is a stand-out, alternating spiky adolescent attitude with a more self-conscious "grown-up" flexibility; perhaps if the movie had been more about these two it might have found a better balance. (Clooney's rapport with younger actresses can be terrific – see him also opposite Anna Kendrick in Up in the Air.) As it is, there's a slight clunk of sitcom predictability in its moves. It is intelligent, and humane, and pretty likeable; it isn't special, though, and that's what you hope and expect an Alexander Payne movie to be.