“The Descendants” is an emotionally complex film that director and co-writer Alexander Payne (“Sideways”) adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ best-selling novel.
“My friends on the mainland think because I live in Hawaii, I live in Paradise…like a permanent vacation…” So we’re told by Matt King, the disillusioned narrator.
As the film’s protagonist, King is rather prosaic, a workaholic lawyer with a solo practice, a wife and two daughters he admits to neglecting—albeit benignly—mainly distinguished as the trustee to 25,000 acres of unspoiled land on the island of Kauai handed down in his family from Hawaiian royalty as the result of marriage between his great-great grandmother, a Hawaiian princess, and her haole (white or foreign) banker.
So what is George Clooney—certainly a Hollywood icon at this point in his career—doing in the low-key role of Matt King?
The answer is: acting…and doing it beautifully. Yes, this is the very same George Clooney of red carpet appearances and late-night talk show repartee, who entertains international celebrities at his villa on Lake Como, and who lends his celebrity to such humanitarian causes as the civil war in Darfur where genocide and starvation have killed hundreds of thousands. And yes, I insist that it is possible to believe Clooney in this unglamorous role much as it is possible to accept the film’s gorgeous setting (Phedon Papamichael directed the photography) as the site of a rather basic family drama. In the theater, we might describe Clooney’s self-effacing performance as the ability to suspend disbelief. He certainly succeeded in suspending mine!
We meet Matt as he is trying to come to terms with the water-skiing accident that has left his wife Elizabeth in what may be a permanent coma and cast him—the “backup parent”—as the primary caretaker of Scottie, their precocious, rebellious ten-year-old, and Alexandra, 17, so furious with her family that she gladly accepted banishment to boarding school.
The women in Matt’s life are played by Patricia Hastie—comatose in her hospital bed except for a brief flashback illustrating her previously athletic and adventurous lifestyle; Shailene Woodley (TV’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager”) as Alexandra, and newcomer Amara Miller in the role of Scottie. The girls are beautifully cast.
Matt’s initial bewilderment in dealing with his new situation is complicated both by Elizabeth’s DNR and an impending deadline to sell the pristine family land to a developer. The staggering sum offered would solve the problems of Matt’s many cousins, most of whom are anxious for a green inheritance of a less ecological stripe.
If you’ve seen previews of “The Descendants” in a movie theater or on your own TV screen, you’re probably aware that Matt is shocked into active mode by learning (from Alex) that his wife had been in the midst of an affair at the time of her accident. Matt’s subsequent behavior takes him on a farcical journey to discover the lover’s identity and to track him down. While Scottie’s youth keeps her in the dark, Matt is encouraged and abetted in his quest by Alex and an unexpected companion, her old schoolmate Sid (Nick Krause) who turns out to be far more than just a goofy nuisance with a penchant for putting both feet in his mouth. (Wiley Alex had her reasons for bringing him along.)
The family odyssey takes the Kings to his in-laws—Robert Forster effective as an angry father who blames Matt’s frugality for Elizabeth’s fate—and out-of it grandma “Tutu” (Barbara Lee Southern). Along the way, Matt meets purposely and/or accidentally with some of his relatives influenced by greedy Cousin Hugh, a guileful Beau Bridges. He also gets to confront his unworthy rival (Matthew Lillard) and earn the compassion of (Lillard’s) aggrieved wife, a memorable cameo by actress Judy Greer.
Throughout the film, the mainly Hawaiian score reinforces the exotic setting for the changing family dynamic and circumstances that rarely play out as expected.
As the mother of two daughters, I think what impressed me most about Clooney’s performance is the way he conveyed Matt’s perplexity, his feelings of helplessness as he stumbles to establish a new relationship with the two young women he has “inherited.” Little girls are so often the apple of their father’s eye; as they grow up, the subtle distance that develops between them becomes a mystery that may never be solved (or resolved), but can—as it is in Matt King’s case—certainly be accommodated. It just takes time and effort and mutual respect...which are pretty much the qualities director Payne brings to this sensitive and engaging story. Kudos—and maybe even Oscars—all around.
“The Descendants” opened Nov. 16 in selected theaters and goes into wider release on Nov. 18.