When we watch other people suffering or struggling through difficult times, we assume we would react in a certain way if we were in that particular situation. This isn’t true. No one knows how they would behave in extreme circumstances until it happens to them. This is essentially the theme of The Descendants which is both an honest portrayal of sadness and a hilarious depiction of our absurd reactions to misfortune.
Set in the paradise of Hawaii, the film opens to find Matt King (George Clooney) sitting by his wife’s hospital bed after she has suffered a severe head injury in a freak boating accident. Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) lies in a coma while everyone around her assures Matt (and themselves) that she will pull through. Matt’s daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), are not handling the situation well, each acting out in their own way. Matt, an extremely successful attorney and land baron, has largely been absent from his daughters’ lives until now, mainly acting as the “back up parent.” Being responsible for both his children with no help from Elizabeth proves to be more than he can handle.
If this wasn’t enough, Alexandra drops an unexpected bit of news on Matt: Elizabeth had been cheating on him. Matt is shocked and is initially furious. He soon cools and becomes obsessed with finding Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), the man who was sleeping with his wife. In the middle of all this, Matt is trying to broker a land deal with his cousins which would sell their family-owned property for a hefty sum but would also upset most of Hawaii’s citizens. Matt struggles to keep his head above water, but with each new challenge it becomes more and more difficult.
Clooney gives yet another terrific performance as Matt, the floundering father and husband. His performance is similar to his work last year in The American. Both roles require Clooney to give an honest portrayal of a character without reliance on either his looks or comedic mannerisms. In The Descendants, Clooney also gives a great physical performance that will likely be overlooked at first. Through Clooney, Matt is the epitome of “not cool” as evidenced by his lame wardrobe and goofy gait. Watching Clooney aimlessly shuffle through the movie is absolutely hilarious.
While the entire cast is strong, it is newcomer Woodley who gives the film’s best performance. As the angry and unstable daughter who swears like a sailor (and appears to revel in it), Woodley is the best part of the film. Up until now, she has mostly been known for her work on ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager. After The Descendants, though, she’ll be known for stealing an entire movie away from George Clooney.
Director Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways) has made a career out of examining difficult relationships using comedy as a way to soften the blow. The Descendants continues this trend nicely. Though his Dickensian surname would suggest otherwise, Payne’s talent as a filmmaker comes from finding humor in any situation, allowing the audience to participate more easily. In The Descendants, Payne has chosen to focus on many dark themes which will be uncomfortable for some people. Though this is not new territory for the director of Citizen Ruth and About Schmidt, The Descendants feels like a more emotionally mature work as he uses the idyllic Hawaiian scenery to contrast the despair being suffered by his characters. Hawaii has never looked or felt so depressing.
The film meanders at times, taking far too long to reach its conclusion, but overall it is a very moving portrait of one family’s fight to move beyond the past and the things they cannot control.
The film is rated R and runs 115 minutes.