The Descendants is director Alexander Payne’s (Sideways, Election) low-key, affable comedy-drama that unfolds at a leisurely pace as it follows a crisis in the family of low-key, affable Hawaiian real-estate attorney Matt King, played by the very high-profile, affable George Clooney. The movie is as likeable as a Hawaiian sunset, and leaves the viewer with the same warm feeling after watching it.
When a water-skiing accident leaves his wife, Elizabeth in a coma, the workaholic dad must take over as full-time parent to his two daughters (who naturally resent him): budding juvenile delinquent Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, of TV’s THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN TEENAGER) and the younger Scottie (Amara Miller). Of course Matt is right in the middle of nailing down the sale of a huge parcel of pristine wilderness the King family owns on Kauai, and not everyone in the extended clan is cool with selling, so Matt has to get everyone on the same page.
But the big problem comes when Matt realizes that Elizabeth has been having an affair with Realtor Brian (Matthew Lillard – yeah, Shaggy from the Scooby-Doo movies!). The Kings set out to stalk Brian – Matt, because he becomes obsessed with learning what his wife saw in the guy, and Alexandra, because she’s consumed by anger with her mother. As Elizabeth’s condition worsens, Matt invites family members to come say goodbye – including her gruff, disapproving father, played by a crusty Robert Forster.
Clooney sets the pace for the rest of the cast, and Woodley has no problem at all keeping up with him, making her the revelation of the movie. Woodley is bratty without being obnoxious because she makes it so clear why Alexandra is doing what she is doing: lashing out because she’s so hurt. It would have been easy to have her morph into the replacement mother figure, but instead, Alexandra grows into her own woman. And Woodley makes us believe the transformation from self-indulgence to caring about others.
Clooney delivers his most nuanced performance yet, making the audience believe that he’s just a regular guy with tousled hair, stubble and baggy shirts. Even when Matt is seething with anger or fibbing his way into someone’s house, he’s never unlikeable. When he’s the victim, he’s never pathetic. Matt’s wife strayed because he wasn’t paying attention, and now that she’s dying he wants nothing more than to give her that attention.
Payne makes extraordinary use of the beauty of the Hawaiian Islands, wonderfully captured by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, and never lets the narrative pace flag, even when the characters aren’t doing anything particularly memorable. In a way, the film is like Hawaii itself: interesting and lovely no matter what’s happening.
Based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants is released on Blu-ray and DVD today.