I so appreciate Alexander Payne’s films for their non-apologetic approach to character studies and his subtle way of infusing comedy into mostly serious narratives. Like in Sideways, where Paul Giamatti’s character is a bit of a slob, has some bad habits, and has low self-esteem. The film doesn’t transform him, he grows up a bit when he finds a lady he likes, but for the most part he’s the same guy, just now he has someone in his life who isn’t completely put off by him. Similarly in The Descendants, George Clooney isn’t the most lovable guy. Although I would argue that George Clooney being George Clooney, anyone watching isn’t going to be turned off too much (Honestly, how can you not like the guy?). Still, he plays an average guy, Matt King, who finds himself at a standstill in all aspects of life: in his marriage, in raising two rebellious daughters, and in his job as a lawyer where he has to decide on an important family matter regarding the inheritance of a large sum of land as the descendants of Hawaiian royalty (we have a title!). Of course, the film starts right away with the accident that puts King’s wife in a coma, making all matters much more complicated. Even though the film centers on the hardships that befall the family with this new situation, particularly as King learns his wife had been having an affair, the story really focuses on King’s realizations that he has been an absent father and husband, always somewhat complacent toward everything in his life. And with his wife’s condition he continues to struggle to find the right course of action of how to deal with what life has thrown at his family. He lets his father-in-law criticize him, makes no real effort to stop his daughters (great performances by Shailene Woodley & Amara Miller) from acting out in inappropriate ways, and wants to leave the decision about the inheritance to everyone else. I found Clooney’s performance a refreshing change from what we’ve seen from him before. Yes, he always tends to look exactly the same in every film, but I saw this as a standout performance. Plus, this is one of the few films that he has ever played a parent (One Fine Day is the only other movie that comes to mind) and I think he played the role convincingly as he tries to remain grounded with his “head above water,” as King says in the film, all while trying hard not to allow any grief to surface. As much of the movie is about trying to reconstruct a family that was already broken, the film is really about a man who doesn’t know how to confront life. This is of course reflected in the film’s beautiful Hawaiian locales. Yes, King says through narration that just because he lives in Hawaii it doesn’t mean he lives in paradise and we are aware that tropical islands deal with tragedy too. But the melancholic ukulele and slack-string melodies, the translucent coastal waters, and the lush greenery that accompany the film in what almost seems to be recycled shots, mirror King’s actions in pretending that everything is fine and will be resolved. By film’s end he has to learn how to let go of things that he cannot control and learn from his daughters’ audacious personalities. And in the true spirit of the film, these are not big realizations, they are subtle lessons that King learns even as he struggles to execute them, dealing with life’s unfairness one day at a time.