Is Alexander Payne growing milder with age? The iconoclast writer-director behind Citizen Ruth and Election is hardly to be seen in The Descendants, a workmanlike adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel about an extended family living out in Hawaii; the film feels almost exactly like a film of a chunky book - soft around the middle - or a concept album Jack Johnson might turn out on the subject of fatherhood. There's nothing to dislike about it, but there's not much to really get anybody's juices flowing either. The protagonist, Matt King (George Clooney), is a father of two struggling to raise his daughters after his wife lapses into a coma in the wake of a powerboating accident. The trauma brings an outpouring of home truths: Matt's tearaway eldest (Shailene Woodley, nicely poised), mad at dad for packing her off to private school, blurts out that mom had spent the months preceding the accident having an affair with a real-estate agent. Matt regathers himself, and his loved ones, and collectively they hit the road to track down the guy in question, keen for some fresh air and non-hospital food - and, in Matt's case, the possibility of payback.
The film's breeziness is pleasant enough, and it soon becomes clear that Hawaii is not just The Descendants' location, but its organising principle. In his opening voiceover, Matt is keen to point out that this isn't just a holiday paradise, but a place where real people live real lives with real dramas and crises; in a later aside, he'll point out that, as in any archipelago, these scattered individuals sometimes come together to arrange themselves into something greater still. It's a small world, after all. This philosophy works its way into the film's very acting styles, setting up an initial clash between Clooney, who still acts as though he's in some snappy metropolitan screwball, and the newcomers around him - his laidback neighbours, the daughter's Keanu-like boyfriend (Nick Krause) - who are basically playing rubes, with the slow, occasionally amusing response times of rubes.
Not for the first time, Payne risks accusations of condescension, yet for a long time, this tactic provides the only real dramatic friction in a film content to potter along in first gear; just as it's been scientifically proven that comedies rarely work in exotic locales (to take three recent examples: Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Couples Retreat, Just Go With It), so to it must be hard to make drama cut deep when its only audio accompaniment are the sounds of waves lapping on the shore and a lightly strummed ukelele. Clooney, you feel, could anchor this sort of thing in his sleep: he has some moderate stretching to do in those scenes where Matt attempts to make sense of his wife's infidelity and to work out what to do with his anger, and he's undeniably good with the actresses playing his daughters, yet there are equally moments here where - clad in Matt's signature Hawaiian shirts - he resembles no more than a sitcom dad trying to resolve his family's issues before the next wrap-up. This move into the creative middleground - suggested by the London Film Festival one-two of this and The Ides of March, and perhaps a response to the failure of 2010's The American - suddenly leaves Clooney looking a far less interesting and vital movie star than he was at the time of Up in the Air even two years ago.
We sense Payne, too, is coasting here, although - to be fair - his writing hits more of a groove once the family get out on the road, where alternative approaches to bringing up our babies can be mooted and contrasted: Matt's gulping fear that his youngest might have been exposed to pornography during a sleepover at a friend's place is immediately superceded by the eldest's calling-out of said friend as, and I quote, "a hornbag slut". Yet in the end, the best Payne's film can offer on this front is a gentle shrug and a whatever-works, preferring to remain easy viewing to the last. Wheeling on an ensemble of welcome small-screen faces (Beau Bridges from My Name is Earl, Judy Greer from Two and a Half Men, even Sheriff Truman from Twin Peaks in an incongruously jolting, wordless bitpart), The Descendants resembles exactly the kind of middle-of-the-road mock-indie where film is being comprehensively trumped by cable-TV serials (Six Feet Under, Weeds) handling these themes with far greater pith, purpose and profundity.
The Descendants opens nationwide tomorrow.