Elbert Ventura in Slate argues that The Descendants is a great movie, despite its too-pretty-to-be-true Hawaian setting.
Don’t let the soothing uke and sun-dappled sadness fool you—The Descendants is no less interested in the cosmic than that exegete’s delight The Tree of Life.
He argues that we overlook its soaring depiction of the natural world, with nature's implicit comment on the fairly pathetic squirmings and upsets of our human counterparts, because the director Alexander Payne has no tolerance for the sheer bigness that is so much apart of great filmmaking, from Welles to Bergmann to Malick.
Allergic to grandiosity, his movies depict losers, schlubs, and schmos dealing with domestic turmoil and personal crises in a nondescript, lived-in America. Across those movies, Payne has carved out an authorial identity defined by career-making performances (Reese Witherspoon in Election, Paul Giamatti in Sideways), adroit tone shifts, and the pitch-perfect rendering of life in these United States.
In this climactic image, it's hard to deny Ventura's point. But maybe we overlooked the nature in "The Descendants" precisely because the characters in this movie, as in seeming all his stories, are "losers, schlubs, and schmos." If all his people are like that, why should we find special meaning in nature in this movie? It's no more meaningful than the prettiness of the wine country in "Sideways."