The story initially revolves around Matt King (George Clooney) trying to handle his two daughters after his wife is put into a boat accident induced coma. It is a meandering tale but this is what he (Payne) does after all and that wasn't a problem I had with it. Plus I do always admire his typical laid back technical approach employed here again. The characters are no more or less likable than any of the others in his films either, but perhaps a shallowness does exist with the family a little too obviously despite a brief monologue by Matt at the start of the film, decrying people's attitudes towards others without understanding the full story. The balance of humor and drama is just as - or maybe even more - successful as it was in Payne's other pictures. Unfortunately I just wasn't able to get invested emotionally as I was with those previous films. This is important for truly appreciating an Alexander Payne film I believe and definitely, I was unable to get to the point that you need to be to find The Descendants truly great. It didn't quite move me even though it tries so hard. Therefore I could only find it merely good, but it is not all doom and gloom; the closeness that the Kings experience due to the events in the film is a positive thing.
The good is that it is never really dull and it does improve during the last 30-40 minutes where some of the best moments materialize. Though it is hard to say any one particular scene or scenes stood out as memorable, and I do find it easy to do that with his other films. Without question I thought George Clooney was great - a subtle dressed down rendition of a 'Dad' for the actor worthy of accolades. His two daughters aged ten and seventeen were played as natural as possible by Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley respectively, with only a couple of moments of angst feeling unconvincing. Other performances were fittingly good, particularly Robert Forster as the father-in-law and a much matured Mathew Lillard in a key role.
It seems to come with the territory with such subject matter and I don't have a problem "sitting in somebody's misery", but I'm not going to go overboard on The Descendants on this point because it wasn't an overly depressing film to me by any means. I'm glad there are writers and directors out there intent on showing the disappointment of life as much as the greatness. Perhaps I had decent sized expectations given I rate Payne pretty highly, so it is just a shame it didn't resonate as much as I wanted it too because it was presented in typically warm fashion by the director. A revisit in twelve or so months may yield different emotions - maturity does seem to have that effect.