The Descendants (15)

There are no real surprises in George Clooney’s latest drama.

The Descendants (15)
dir: Alexander Payne

Imagine Patricia Hastie's excitement at telling her loved ones she had landed a pivotal role in The Descendants, the new film from the director of Sideways. Not just any role either but George Clooney's wife. Undercutting this jubilation must have been the knowledge that her character, Elizabeth, would spend all but a few seconds of the movie lying in a hospital bed in a coma following a boating accident. Great actors know the power of stillness - "Don't just do something, stand there" is an old drama school mantra - but even Robert Mitchum stirred occasionally, even if it was only to exhale a lungful of smoke. Still, Hastie can say she got the job. Think of those who failed the audition: "I'm sorry, you're just too . . . awake."

After Elizabeth's injury, it is left to Matt (Clooney), until then too immersed in his Honolulu law practice to be much of a husband or father, to care for their two daughters - the rebellious teenager Alex (Shailene Woodley), who has long been exhibiting hostile tendencies, and ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), who has only just begun. For his part, Matt suffers from intermittent bouts of bad voice-over syndrome. "My family seems exactly like an archipelago" is one of his observations. That simile could only be worse if he were to explain it, you think, shortly before he explains it.

When the doctor tells him that his wife's condition is deteriorating and advises switching off the life support to honour the wishes of her will, Matt sets out to break the news to her friends and relatives. The writer-director Alexander Payne specialises in the reversal of expectation, typically manifested in a crisis interrupted by humour or irony. That might be what drew him to The Descendants, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, which has at its centre a plot point that strikes precisely that discordant note: shortly before dispensing the bad tidings, Matt learns that Elizabeth was having an affair. If only he could hear the soothing twang of the Hawaiian music laid over almost every shot, he might be as reassured as we are that everything will turn out dandy.

The Descendants looks to this formula for its emotional effects. Scenes play out so often in unconventional ways (Matt breaking the news to Alex while she is swimming, or to a neighbour during an argument) that this quickly becomes the film's orthodoxy. Many of the characters reveal an unexpected side, or at least a side that would be unexpected if everyone in the film didn't have one. Alex's dopey friend Sid (Nick Krause) is actually wiser than his crass behaviour first indicates. Elizabeth's father, Scott (Robert Forster), displays a cleansing compassion that rinses away his former gruffness. Matt's rival in love turns out to resemble something the real George Clooney might pick out of his teeth.

It's true that people can be unpredictable but they're not unpredictable all the time and the consequence of squeezing into one movie so many characters with hidden aspects is to make each one seem less authentic. Keep serving up surprises or subversions and pretty soon they become nothing of the sort: "So true!" turns into "So what?" Payne pulled all these tricks and more in his best film, Election, but that was a screwball farce that moved like a whip. His style is more conspicuous and mannered in The Descendants, where the pace is so leisurely that in some shots you can practically see the plumeria growing.

Payne's compulsive wrong-footing is in contrast to a symbolic and predictable subplot about the sale of land on the coast of Kaua'i. These 25,000 acres have been in Matt's family for generations - he and his cousins (as well as his daughters) are the descendants of the title. As sole trustee, he must now choose between the competing bids, any one of which will bring him a substantial windfall.

Then again, he could leave the land gloriously uncorrupted. Early in the film, a neighbour warns him that his choice will have a big impact on the entire landscape of Kaua'i. An interesting parlour game at this point would be to write your own version of the scene in which Matt makes his decision. You won't be far from the mark.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, President Newt