The Descendants is that rarest of contemporary films–a story of ordinary real people who find themselves in extraordinary, but still real-life dilemmas. The characters in the film are not super-human, they’re just normal. They’re not perfect, not at all, in fact, the entire film points out how imperfect, they really are. They got themselves into trouble by making mistakes–and at story’s end, they’re going to head into their future, more aware maybe, maybe more wise, but still prone to mistakes. In other words, this is a story about people pretty much like us.
In director Alexander Payne’s steady, straight forward narrative, the story grabs us, holds our interest the entire time and makes us want to talk about it afterwards. The Descendants is a great film to see with your friends or even–heaven forefend–with your teenage children.
Matt King (George Clooney) is an attorney in a Honolulu suburb who lives a secure, but not ostentatious life style because he lives on his earnings, rather than the funds from the huge land trust he manages. He–along with passel of cousins–are the descendants of a Hawaiian princess and a Scottish immigrant who bequeathed them the largest, pristine plot of land still left on Oahu. According to the demands of the trust, the land will have to be sold soon–or otherwise disposed of. Most of the relatives want to sell to a big developer, just take the millions and run. A few want to stay stewards of the land, keeping it in its natural state. As trustee, Matt hasn’t made up his mind, but his vote is the determining one, so the family pressure is on.
But his more pressing problems are closer to home than the thousands of beachside property. His wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), from whom he has been distant for a while, had a terrible boating accident that has left her in a coma. A typical workaholic absentee father, Matt must now take over parenting duties to his two daughters, neither of whom takes kindly to the change in the family dynamics. College student Alexandra (Shaileen Woodley) comes home from school but refuses to visit her mother in the hospital. It seems they had a huge blow-out recently and Alexandra hates her. Ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) is torn between loving both her parents, wanting to be just like her older sister, and terrified of an unpredictable future. Adding to Matt’s generational dislocation is Alexandra’s boyfriend Sid (Nick Kraus), who seems to be an adolescent galoot but who happens to have more on the ball than Matt realizes.
Alexandra finally reveals to her father why she’s mad at her mother. Elizabeth was having an affair and Alexandra caught her in the act. Matt was totally clueless about his wife’s betrayal and the shock of the news, combined with his inability to yell out his hurt feelings at his wife, makes him do some pretty outrageous things. Like insisting that he and his daughters track down his wife’s lover (Matthew Lillard) and confront him. Unfortunately, Matt finds the cuckolder on vacation with his pretty young wife (Judy Greer) and their children. Should Matt wreak his revenge and ruin this man’s family as the scofflaw ruined his?
If it weren’t so sad, the adventure on another island would be pretty funny. Not only does Matt want to get a look at his rival and duke it out with him in the tried-and-true way of betrayed husbands, but he also wants to deliver the heartbreaking news in person–Elizabeth is not going to recover from her coma. She is going to die. They will have to unplug her from the machines that are now keeping her alive. If the lover wants to say goodbye to Elizabeth, he’s going to have to do it now.
The girls go through their separate and very different reactions to this terrible news. Their performances, along with Clooney’s are superb–they’re so believable you want to laugh and cry right along with them. You feel Matt’s frustration and anger along with his grief–a man who wants to beg forgiveness and indulge in rage at the same time — but the object of his emotions can’t hear him and can’t talk back. It’s a powerful dilemma.
Meanwhile Elizabeth’s family is taking out their long pent-up anger on Matt, who is helpless to defend himself. And the rest of Matt’s family, including his beach bum cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges) are pressuring him to sign the papers to sell the land.
Because we often see Clooney in bigger than life roles, such as a Presidential candidate in The Ides of March (see the Bold Life review) or as an assassin seeking retirement (The American) and because he is so good-looking and charming in real life, we forget what a darn good actor Mr. Clooney really is. His performance anchors this worthy film and makes The Descendants one of the best of the year.