The unfolding of the predicament of George Clooney‘s Matt King “is surprising, moving and frequently very funny,” says N.Y. Times critic A.O. Scott in his review of The Descendants. “Director Alexander Payne — immeasurably aided by a dazzlingly gifted, doggedly disciplined cast — nimbly sidesteps the sentimental traps that lurk within the film’s premise. He somehow achieves the emotional impact of good melodrama and the hectic absurdity of classic farce without ever seeming to exaggerate.
“There are times when you laugh or gasp in disbelief at what has just happened — an old man punches a teenager in the face; a young girl utters an outrageous obscenity; Mr. Clooney slips on a pair of boat shoes and runs, like an angry, flightless bird, to a neighbor’s house — and yet every moment of the movie feels utterly and unaffectedly true.
“A lively and complicated mesh of plots and subplots takes shape” within The Descendants, “but the most striking and satisfying aspects are its unhurried pace and loose, wandering structure.
“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.
“Each person who shows up on screen, even for a minute or two with nothing especially important to accomplish, has an odd and memorable individuality. The Descendants seems to unfold within a vast landscape of possible stories. [And] Mr. Payne, with a light touch and a keen sense of place — this Hawaii is as real and peculiar as the Nebraska of About Schmidt or the California wine country of Sideways — has made a movie that, for all its modesty, is as big as life. Its heart is occupied by grief, pain and the haunting silence of [Matt’s comatose wife] Elizabeth, whose version of events is the only one we never hear. And yet it is also full of warmth, humor and the kind of grace that can result from our clumsy attempts to make things better.
“To call The Descendants perfect would be a kind of insult, a betrayal of its commitment to, and celebration of, human imperfection. Its flaws are impossible to distinguish from its pleasures. For example: after what feels as if it should be the final scene, a poignant, quiet tableau of emotional resolution and apt visual beauty, Mr. Payne adds another, a prosaic coda to a flight of poetry.
“Without saying too much or spoiling the mood, I will say that I was grateful for this extra minute, a small gift at the end of a film that understands, in every way, how hard it can be to say goodbye.”