"The writer-director Alexander Payne has the right double-edged temperament for The Descendants, a 'family comedy' in which the mother lies in a coma, on life support, while the father races around Hawaii, a chunk of which he's about to sell off, looking for her illicit lover, with his daughters (10 and 17) in tow," begins David Edelstein in New York. "Payne is too acerbic — maybe too much of an asshole — to settle for easy humanism. But he's too smart a dramatist to settle for easy derision. Mockery and empathy seesaw, the balance precarious — and thrillingly so. It's the noblest kind of satire: cruel and yet, in the end, lacking the killing blow."
In the Voice, J Hoberman wonders "what has blunted this gifted writer-director's edge? Payne topped his debut feature, the provocatively obnoxious abortion comedy Citizen Ruth (1996), with Election (1999), an even sharper exercise in social satire, while the final, impressively bleak movie of his Omaha trilogy, About Schmidt (2002), afforded Jack Nicholson the opportunity for one last committed performance. But moving on to California for Sideways, Payne flirted with the New Age clichés he previously had targeted, and, set even further into the sunset, The Descendants is insistently sincere and positively sudsy. Payne's earlier movies have been strongly character-driven by richly flawed characters — Reese Witherspoon's monstrous high school striver, Nicholson's thoroughly unpleasant widower, the matched pair of jerks who stumble through Sideways — and his great talent was extracting a sense of sympathy even for them." George Clooney's Matt King, on the other hand, "is the most charming and least interesting character Payne has ever featured."
Salon's Andrew O'Hehir suggests that "if a movie can be subtle and clumsy at the same time, The Descendants is that movie."
"Clooney is responsible for everything right that happens," argues Time's Richard Corliss. "He suavely navigates Matt's internal pilgrimage: from the first awful news — with a look of gray devastation, as if he is channeling his wife's coma by becoming a member of the walking dead — to the shouldering of parental responsibility and the grudge match with the man who took his place in Elizabeth's affections. With no sweat or obvious editorializing, Clooney turns Matt's churning emotions into eloquent verses in the liturgy of grieving and redemption. It's just a shame that the rest of The Descendants couldn't rise to meet the artistry he pours into it."
But for the New York Times' AO Scott, "every moment of the movie feels utterly and unaffectedly true…. In most movies the characters are locked into the machinery of narrative like theme park customers strapped into a roller coaster. Their ups and downs are as predetermined as their shrieks of terror and sighs of relief, and the audience goes along for the ride. But the people in this movie seem to move freely within it, making choices and mistakes and aware, at every turn, that things could be different."
"Payne has been criticized in the past before for making snide satirical points at the expense of his characters and their sentimentalities," notes Glenn Kenny, another defender. "I've not entirely agreed with those criticisms, but I doubt that those who've made them will find any such fault with The Descendants. While you couldn't call Payne's eye and tone here entirely uncritical, I think the occasional wry skepticism inherent in its overall perspective, which for lack of a better word here I'll call 'humanist,' is perfectly judged at every turn here. It's one of the many things that makes The Descendants such a cinematic joy."
More from Dennis Harvey (San Francisco Bay Guardian), Peter Keough (Boston Phoenix, 3.5/4), Anthony Lane (New Yorker; Richard Brody follows up), Charles H Meyer (Cinespect), Nicolas Rapold (L), Vadim Rizov (GreenCine Daily), Betsy Sharkey (Los Angeles Times), Keith Uhlich (Time Out New York, 4/5) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, 5.5/10). Earlier: Reviews from Telluride and Toronto and NYFF 2011.
Payne profiles and interviews: Frank Bruni (NYT), John Horn (LAT), Glenn Kenny, Joshua Rothkopf (TONY) and Scott Tobias (AV Club). Sarah Wexler talks with Judy Greer for Vulture and the LAT's Envelope asks Clooney about the work of his peers that's left an impression lately: "Jean Dujardin [in The Artist]. Because it's not just the style of the film, it's that his performance was so elegant and fun. He just jumps off the screen, and he's so good, and I thought that was a spectacular performance. You know what [else] I just saw that I really liked — I thought I'd like it anyway because they're all friends of mine — but I really liked Moneyball. You know I'm still a baseball nut. It's really good. Brad [Pitt] is one of those actors that I think is always sort of underestimated… and the truth is he's really good in that movie."
Updates, 11/17: "The Descendants' largely plotless middle hour is fantastic," writes Sean Burns in the Philadelphia Weekly. "Payne has a knack for letting scenes breathe and allowing his characters to surprise us…. Stumbling over the finish line with some sentimental strokes one would never expect from the ruthless director of About Schmidt, The Descendants feels like a transitional film for Alexander Payne. He's lost his angry-young-man pitilessness and here fumbles a bit for a more measured, accepting tone. It grows on you."
"For all its faults, it would be a mistake to dismiss a movie that features people we rarely see on a big screen, in places we seldom visit, trying to make sense of the relationships they've squandered and the futures they can still control," writes Noel Murray at the AV Club.
"The casting is stellar throughout," notes Ray Pride at Newcity Film, "including roles for Robert Forster, Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard and the astonishing Judy Greer that match Clooney's depth of feeling, but it is [Shailene] Woodley (The Secret Life of the American Teenager) who best embodies the rage, fear and other emotions that sear the film. While Anna Paquin's tumultuous turn in Margaret is a masterpiece of teen turmoil, Woodley's embodies a luminous brat, yet also a smart, maturing, immature young woman that ranks within hailing distance of that performance."
"The state of Hawaii is a co-star," adds Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times. "I've been there many times, which only qualifies me as a tourist, but at more than 20 Hawaii Film Festivals, I met so many people and went to so many places that I began to understand how its people feel a love and protectiveness for the land, and how seriously they take its traditions…. An undercurrent, which Payne wisely keeps subtle, is that perhaps Matt lost touch with his wife and daughters after first losing his special bond to the land."
Updates, 11/20: Michael Koresky in Reverse Shot: "As he showed in Election and About Schmidt, especially, Payne works in a defiantly accessible and mainstream register, yet manages to inject an emotional authenticity into his films, so that his characters, while clearly readable as regional and social types, behave in a manner that never feels overly cheapened by the machinations of some puppet master behind the scenes. We're not talking about uncompromised realism here, but rather a specifically American brand of filtered truth: like most of his fellow countrymen filmmakers, he prefers identifiable emotional arcs, the relatable comedy of behavior, the reliable drama of redemption. With The Descendants, a story of family and inheritance, Payne ventures into potentially uncomfortable territory and comes out with something reassuring — but that doesn't make the journey unrewarding."
Slate's Dana Stevens: "Past Payne protagonists — Laura Dern's abortion-seeking glue-huffer in Citizen Ruth, Paul Giamatti's sozzled schoolteacher in Sideways — were irredeemable jerks we couldn't help caring about anyway. Now he's created his most likable protagonist yet, and I can't seem to make myself care."
Updates, 11/25: "The Descendants is beautifully shot (by Phedon Papamichael) and compellingly performed," writes Kimberley Jones in the Austin Chronicle, "especially by its young stars, and it has moments of startling tenderness. If only it didn't feel phony to its bones."
Clooney "might get an Oscar," suggests David Thomson in the New Republic, "but in truth he is still too comfortable being George Clooney, and being liked, to get deep enough into what ought to be a more awkward movie."