Alexander Payne’s The Descendants gets a lot of things right, but its strongest asset is honesty: these characters feel real, and over the course of the film, we get to know them, identify with them, care about them. Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt, Election) has a special knack for creating convincing characters, and mining real comedy out of their difficult lives.
The film is set in Hawaii. “My friends think that just because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise,” George Clooney’s Matt King tells us, before demonstrating that the state is also a bustling metropolis, and those who live there have the same problems as we do. Meanwhile, gorgeous locations and cinematography by Phedon Papamichael work to convince us otherwise.
The film unfolds with three distinct, but related, crises. At the outset, we learn that Matt’s wife was involved in a speedboat accident, and is in a coma. She isn’t getting better, and has a stipulation in her will that requires doctors to take her off of life support. Matt has to inform their friends and family, and be the father he never really was to his two daughters.
His eldest daughter, 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), drops a bombshell: mom was cheating on him. The situation gets complicated as they track down the real estate agent she was seeing (Matthew Lillard), and also his wife (Judy Greer).
As his personal crises come to a head, Matt must make another important decision. His extended family, represented by a dozen cousins including Hugh (Beau Bridges), owns a large plot of untouched island land and is in negotiations to sell to a developer that will turn it into a resort.
Most cousins are for the sale, some are against it, but the final decision rests with Matt. This is the least involving subplot, because the particulars of why the family needs to sell, what their options are, and who is in favor of what are never fully explored.
And also, Matt’s ultimate decision is never in question. That’s because, after informing us after his failures as a husband and father at the beginning, Matt is nothing less than a saint for the duration of the movie, making the noblest of moves in the most difficult of circumstances. Clooney is terrific here, portraying a conflicted man whose decisions might indicate otherwise, but his character is somewhat less interesting as a result.
The supporting characters, on the other hand, offer up a lot more color. Matt’s daughters (Woodley and young Amara Miller) are engaging, and their relationship with their father is perfectly realized.
Robert Forster only has a pair of scenes as Elizabeth’s father, but he arguably has the biggest impact on the film. Even Alexandra’s boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), who feels like he might be more at home in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, is given his due in an unexpected scene.
The Descendants is based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, a native of Hawaii. We’ve seen a lot of movies set in the state, but few dig beyond the tourist trappings and so well capture a culture of lawyers and real estate tycoons who do business in Hawaiian shirts and sandals. A well-chosen soundtrack, which includes Hawaiian hits from over the years from Gabby Pahinui and other musicians, suits the film perfectly.
The film recently picked up Golden Globes for Drama and Actor (Clooney), and is likely to be at the top of Oscar race, too. It’s an excellent film (though not nearly the best of the year), but some may leave disappointed; while it covers familiar ground, it doesn’t always offer clear explanations and easy answers.
Among Payne’s work, I slightly preferred his last film, Sideways, which came out seven years ago. Here’s hoping his next comes after a shorter hiatus.