**1/2 (out of four)
George Clooney goes to Hawaii in “The Descendants,” but no one should expect a movie as light and amusing as “George Clooney Goes to Hawaii” would be. (Memo to studio heads: I expect a producer credit when you move forward on this as-of-yet non-existent documentary idea.)
Rather, director/co-writer Alexander Payne’s first feature since 2004’s “Sideways” takes place against a beautiful island backdrop where the family drama has all the stress-free glamor of Cleveland. Clooney stars as Matt King, who has a lot happening at once. He’s the decision-maker when it comes to selling the ultra-valuable 25,000 acres his family owns in Kauai. In Oahu, Matt’s wife (Patricia Hastie) is in a coma after being hurt in a boat accident.
Matt, who identifies himself as the “backup parent,” soon wonders how to corral his foul-mouthed 10-year-old daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), and his 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley of “The Secret Life of the American Teenager”), whose relationship recently deteriorated with her mother.
Payne’s ditched his usual condescension, but the filmmaker (who adapted the script with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel) frequently clips the story’s natural emotion by tweaking a high-feeling moment with a joke or other interruption. (Alex’s moronic friend Sid is kinda funny, not at all believable—and totally distracting.) We don’t need Matt’s occasional, unnecessary voiceover. And we really don’t need a ridiculously expository late-movie scene in which Matt’s cousin (Beau Bridges) explains stakes that were already obvious before the third statement about them.
Add in the underdeveloped land deal subplot and “The Descendants” faces an uphill battle of authenticity. Yet Clooney, who’s not exactly synonymous with “low-energy schlub disconnected from his wife and disrespected by his kids,” delivers a tender performance that makes up for him not quite looking the part. Woodley’s just as good, if not better.
The film sometimes succeeds in exploring the universally relatable process of sorting out complex situations and wondering how and when to be the bigger person. The realizations ultimately feel a little cute, though. Early on Matt says, “Paradise can go [bleep] itself.” Payne understands what brings people together and how they drift apart; he just presents this with a cinematic bow around it rather than with the natural frays and fringes of real life.
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Fridays at 7:30 a.m. on WCIU, the U
firstname.lastname@example.org. @mattpaisCopyright © 2015, RedEye