I've finally emerged from the state of "so full of pending commitments that I'd feel too guilty to take the time to see a movie" far enough to rent one. Semi-unspoilerish comments:
1. I picked this one in particular probably so that I could weigh in on an argument presented some months ago by a movie-connoisseur friend on the burning question: Does Shailene Woodley (who plays the elder daughter) have a large enough part to qualify as a "Leading Role" by Oscar standards? He says yes, I now say no.
2. I've liked every Alexander Payne movie I've seen, and I've now seen four of them.* His way of presenting characters and their surroundings (this really vividly depicts Hawaii as a place that people live in, if those people are rich haoles) and getting strong, naturalistic acting out of the cast appeal to me, despite the kinds of stories that I'd roll my eyes at in novels. I'm now thinking I should see a fifth, Sideways, a movie I'd avoided, despite my familiarity with its geographic setting, because I feared the characters would be too pretentious.
3. The Descendants is mostly about the characters' relationship with another character whom most of them know, but whom we, the viewers, never really get to meet, so there's a kind of hole (deliberate, I suspect) in the middle of the movie. In this, and in the eulogistic air to that relationship, it reminds me of The Big Chill.
4. Although I liked the movie a great deal, I have some plot grumbles, and this is where I have to be only semi-unspoilerish.
a. Character in this movie is most dramatically revealed in the form of monologues delivered to the person in a coma. This gets a little predictable, but is well done. But here's this: Matt (George Clooney) gets two such scenes, even the minor character of Julie gets one powerful one (Matt is present but mostly unseen by the camera until he gently leads her away), but Alex (Woodley) never really gets one. Her one big monologue is as much about the reaction of the others in the room to what she says as it is about her. Another such scene we know happens, but we don't see it. The result is that, although Alex has as dramatic a character arc as Matt does, much of it remains undepicted: we see the results and understand the causes, but we don't see it happening as we do for him. This is one reason I don't consider the role a leading one.
b. There's a key piece of information (the one that Beau Bridges has) that remains hidden until a later point in the movie than it ought to show up, and it depends on another character earlier on making an assumption that ought to be unjustified about what the protagonist knows.
c. Most of the characters are well-handled. But in stories of this kind that offer surprise plot twists, as this one does, there is usually one character whom the writers are openly manipulating for the sake of goosing the audience. In this movie, that character turns out to be the land that the family trust owns.
*Answer to obvious question: About Schmidt, Election, and the unforgettable Citizen Ruth.