Steward of 25,000 pristine acres of undeveloped waterfront on the island of Kauai, Matt King (George Clooney), is charged with dissolving the family trust before the seven-year time limit. In the wake of this difficult decision, his daredevil wife (Patricia Hastie) has been injured in a boating accident, and is in a coma, with no brain activity. Matt must bring his clan together to vote on a buyer for the land. He circles the wagons and attempts to reign in his daughters– one a mouthy prepubescent brat and the other a wayward teen with an affinity for drugs and older men—to pay their final respects to their dying mother.
When Matt (shockingly!) learns that his wife has been unfaithful, his focus shifts to finding and meeting his wife’s lover, an adventure that includes Scottie (Amara Miller), Alex (Shailene Woodley) and her pothead friend Sid (Nick Krause), who is delightfully insightful and stupid. An island hopping trip ensues, with a stop at the piece of land that is up for sale. Alex recollects camping trips with her mother, and Scottie is disappointed that was not something she ever experienced. It’s intimated that the marriage began to fail when the family stopped being so tied to the land; the idea that it’s just time to let it all go is a powerful one that is very subtley enforced in this brief scene of looking down on a paradise that was once within grasp, but is now out of reach.
Clooney, a flexible actor who can play brooding, goofball, and lover, excels in this role as an ordinary guy (albeit, one worth a lot of money), a back-up parent struggling to understand his girls, a man who above all is trying to do the right thing and still maintain his dignity. What kind of man decides he needs to let his wife’s lover know she is dying so he can say goodbye–instead of losing it? Matt King. He barely cracks a smile when he makes a stinging sardonic comment that makes the viewer laugh, and effectively tears up at a touching moment that displays just how complex a marriage can be.
Supporting characters are strong; Matthew Lillard is exceptional as Elizabeth’s lover Brian. He plays the consummate host in his wife’s presence while behind her back, he battles his shock and fear at Matt’s revelation that he knows about the affair. Beau Bridges is affable but steely when Matt announces he may not want to sell, after all. Judy Greer is subtle and sweet as the jilted wife.
Hawaii becomes a character in her own right, with moods and actions. Clouds permeate the panoramic landscapes throughout the film, reflecting the murkiness of the characters, the heavy weight of decisions hanging over Matt’s head, and the gloomy situation he finds himself in. It is only at the end that the sun shines through. Still, Hawaii’s beauty shimmers in verdant landscapes, sparkling oceans, and delicate flora. A soundtrack of ukelele music and wardrobe of Hawaiian shirts further enhance the island atmosphere.
I hated Sideways so much I haven’t had a glass of merlot since. I couldn’t empathize with the characters, didn’ t like the clever-for-cleverness’s-sake editing of the road trip montage, and found the funny and dark didn’t come together. In The Descendents, director Alexander Payne seems to have a better handle on his journey metaphor, and stronger control over the depth the characters display.
If you don’t have enough family dysfunction in your holiday season, go peer at someone else’s. The Descendants has humor and pathos, and serves as a great escape to warmer climes.