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By Phil Hall | November 30, 2011

How to account for the virtually universal acclaim director Alexander Payne has received for his first film in the seven years since Sideways? One possibility, it’s occurred to me, is that many critics haven’t watched Sideways in something close to seven years. That might begin to explain the baffling glut of reviews hailing The Descendants as its equal.

Which it is not by a long shot. Don’t get me wrong: It’s a smarter-than-average soap opera with its share of dandy dialogue and fine performances but a glorified soap opera nonetheless.

One reason the movie might be mistaken for something more, of course, is the fact that it stars George Clooney. As we learned earlier this year with the release of The Ides of March, however, the actor’s presence is no longer the cinematic Good Housekeeping Seal it once was.

He plays Matt King, a Honolulu attorney and unlikely land baron. His extended family is descended from the first white haoles who colonized the islands in the 19th century and-for reasons never made clear-he’s the sole trustee of 25,000 pristine beachfront acres which have been passed down through generations and his cousins are pressuring him to sell to developers.

Wrestling with his conscience over the matter is suddenly but one front in a perfect storm of problems when his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is thrown from a speeding boat and winds up in a coma. The father of two troubled, spirited daughters, King is a self-described “backup parent” ill-equipped to juggle his wife’s imminent demise and the emotional needs of his kids. Two of the picture’s most convincing performances are turned in by Amara Miller as 10-year-old Scottie and Shailene Woodley in the role of 17-year-old Alex. A real find, Woodley may well prove this year’s Jennifer Lawrence.

Just when Clooney’s character figures life can’t possibly get any messier, he learns that Elizabeth had been cheating on him and was planning to ask for a divorce. The scene which follows this revelation is typical of the sort of stylistic misstep Payne makes throughout the movie.

In a sequence featured prominently in the picture’s trailer and TV spots, the cuckolded husband bolts from his front door in comically noisy flip-flops and runs through his neighborhood to the home of his wife’s best friend (Mary Birdsong) to confirm the news.

A similarly off key note is struck not long afterward when King tracks her married lover to a rented seaside bungalow and conducts bug-eyed surveillance from behind a hedge/wall. These absurdist, almost Coenesque touches feel as out of place in the story as do the weepy, highly sentimental moments the filmmaker stages between Matt and his unconscious mate near the finale.

Payne’s latest works best when it threads the middle ground and focuses on the King family’s dysfunctional attempt to grapple with its meltdown. Based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’ 2007 novel and adapted by the director, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the script serves up a luau of rib-ticklers but the filmmaker for some reason tends to bury them in the mix; to treat them as throwaways. I picked up several of its funniest lines during my third viewing.

So sure, if you can get past all the heart-tugging, life lessons and by-the-numbers bonding, there are a handful of amusingly offbeat developments and decent laughs here. At the same time, this is anything but a career topper for either its director or star. The highpoints arise from interactions with and between the junior members of the cast-including Nick Krause as Alex’s variously daffy and sage surfer boyfriend Sid. I suppose it should prove no surprise that that the pithiest moments in a big screen soap should come courtesy of the young and the restless.

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