“The Descendants” is the acclaimed new film from writer-director Alexander Payne, who gave us “Sideways” and “About Schmidt” several years ago. Like those previous films, “The Descendants” pulls off the neat trick of being both funny and sad. Payne’s movies feature characters who are flawed, yet deeply human.“The Descendants” stars George Clooney in his finest film role as Matt King, a descendant of Hawaii’s royal family. Matt and his family are in the process of making a decision about a beautiful, unspoiled tract of land which they inherited. The land could easily be worth a fortune.
As the movie opens, Matt’s wife, Elizabeth, is hospitalized as a result of a serious boating accident. At the hospital, a doctor tells Matt that Elizabeth will not recover from the accident, and will soon be taken off life support. Matt and Elizabeth had drifted apart, and had considered a divorce. Matt knows that he must communicate this tragic news to his two daughters: Scottie, an 11-year-old, and Alex, a 17-year-old who is away at a boarding school on the island of Hawaii.
Reluctantly, Alex returns to Honolulu with her father. He informs her of Elizabeth’s condition. Matt asks Alex to help with Scottie at this time, even while she deals with her own grief. Alex agrees, if she can have her friend, Sid, with them for her own support. Matt reluctantly agrees, even though he doesn’t know Sid.
Alex also confides in her father that she knew that her mother had been having an affair. Matt is both devastated and angry at this news, and wants to discover and confront Elizabeth’s lover. Alex insists she doesn’t know him. She only saw the man with Elizabeth. As Elizabeth is dying, Matt, Alex, Scottie, and Sid make a quick trip to Kauai to find this man.
As with Payne’s previous movies, “The Descendants” has many rich, beautifully written and acted scenes between the major characters. Through these scenes, Matt and his daughters become closer to each other in the midst of the tragedy. Surprising depth arises from many scenes. One of my favorites was a late-night meeting between Matt and Sid. Seemingly dense and insensitive, Sid tells Matt that he had recently lost his own father. It’s a poignant moment in which Matt realizes there may be more to Sid than he assumed. Writer-director Payne is a master at quiet moments like this.
The best thing about the movie is the way that the relationship between Matt, Alex, and Scottie develops in the midst of the tragedy, and how they all deal with their conflicting feelings. Tragedies within families can either tear them apart or bring them closer together. In “The Descendants,” tragedy brings the Kings together. They bond as a family unit in a way that they had not before. In their own ways, Matt, Alex, and Scottie each mature throughout the course of the movie. Even Sid shows signs of hope.
George Clooney gives his best performance as Matt. Clooney looks older, sadder, and wiser than he has before. He’s always been a fine comic actor, often compared to Cary Grant. Here he shows the depth of emotion he can play. As Alex, newcomer Shailene Woodley gives a remarkable performance. Resentful and angry at first, she learns how to be there for her dad, deal with her mother’s adultery and death, and be a good big sister for Scottie. Woodley handles all this beautifully.
“The Descendants” is not quite as sharp as the great “Sideways.” At times, the film goes in too many different directions with its subplots. It could be a bit shorter and tighter. Despite this, “The Descendants” is still well worth seeing for its emotional depth and fine performances. I imagine it will be a contender in the year end award contests, particularly for Clooney and Woodley.
Tom Condon, OP