For all his Oscars and supermodel girlfriends, George Clooney is unusually adept at playing the average, flawed American man. His Matt King, the back-up parent to two daughters and husband to an unhappy wife, is overextended and unaware of the turbulence at home. Matt is forced to remedy this neglect when his wife is seriously injured in a boating accident, and realizes he knows little about the daily lives of his family. The Descendants, which director Alexander Payne adapted from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, is an insightful, tough drama about loss and reconciliation that Clooney spearheads with an excellent performance.
The film's title refers to two distinct groups: Matt's daughters, Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), and the handful of cousins who stand to benefit alongside Matt if he authorizes the sale of 25,000 acres of untouched land on the Hawaiian island of Kaua'i. Matt's ancestors were one of the first land-owning families in Hawaii, and the land is held in a trust set to dissolve in seven years. The sale has big implications for the island, and exponentially increased Matt's already heavy workload as a Honolulu attorney. Matt's wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), lands in a coma after a speedboat accident, forcing Matt to leave the office and nurture his girls.
In his narration Matt makes clear that he left the parenting to Elizabeth and knew his marriage was crumbling. Ten-year-old Scottie starts acting out without her mom, and Matt decides to pull 17-year-old Alex out of boarding school. He finds her drunk with friends, and asks if she is still using drugs. Alex has not been home since Christmas, when she and Elizabeth fought bitterly. After some prodding, Alex reveals that Elizabeth was cheating on Matt, and that she had been trying to tell her father since finding out. Matt immediately runs to see Elizabeth's best friend, Kai (Mary Birdsong), to find out how many others knew about the infidelity.
The Descendants lays it on Elizabeth pretty thick, and the fallen matriarch is in no position to defend herself. Elizabeth sought solace from her unhappy marriage in daredevil sports and a lover, but slacked on mothering Alex when she became a difficult teenager. Elizabeth's father, Scott (Robert Forster), chastises Matt for neglecting his sweet daughter, and tells Alex she is an ungrateful and hateful daughter. On its surface, The Descendants is realistically unpleasant. Those who knew Elizabeth are forced to speak at her as she lies in a hospital bed, covered in tubes and monitors. Elizabeth has hurt others, but she has been hurt, too.
Payne, through films like Sideways and Election, proves skilled at understanding and exploring human fallibility. The Kings suffer a devastating tragedy, but are instantly relatable. In righting his own wrongs, Matt attempts to discover why Elizabeth strayed. He travels with his girls and Alex's goofy friend Sid (Nick Krause) to confront his wife's lover. What he discovers is both expected and complex, and The Descendants has the nerve to grant Matt both compassion and furor toward this man. Matt manages to bond with his girls during this unpleasant vacation, which is something he has not done in years.
Clooney's performance is natural and affecting, and he mixes well with Payne's intimate filmmaking. Woodley, from TV's The Secret Life of the American Teenager, is similarly excellent, and she allows the pain hiding under Alex's caustic demeanor to come forth in waves. Payne's casting is perfect all around, and the actors who fill small, important roles - Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer and Beau Bridges - add much to the film. The characters in The Descendants do not always behave as expected, but that is the reality of grief; it is confusing and irrational, painful and sometimes funny. The Descendants is all these things.
PICTURE AND SOUND:
Per studio policy, Fox's screening disc does not include the final transfer or soundtrack, so I cannot comment on these areas of the disc. If a retail copy becomes available to me, I will update my review accordingly.
The extras begin with Everybody Loves George (7:26), in which the cast and crew discuss the talents and general good nature of the film's leading man. Clooney proves to be a hit on set, interacting with the crew, telling stories and mentoring the younger actors. Working with Alexander (13:33) reveals a bit about the director's process, and Payne discusses adapting Hemmings' novel for the screen. Hawaiian Style (16:45) serves as a concise making-of, and provides some nice on-set footage of Payne, Clooney and the rest of the cast in action. I particularly enjoyed the comments about Hawaiian culture, and the cast attempts to adopt some of the local dialect to amusing results. Fox also includes the film's theatrical trailer (2:13) and some bonus previews.
Director Alexander Payne again proves adept at tackling human emotion with The Descendants, which he also adapted for the screen. George Clooney gives another great performance as the overworked father of two girls he barely knows who is thrust back into parenting when his wife is gravely injured. The Descendants is about grief and reconciliation, and great performances from Clooney and Shailene Woodley complement the strong material. The Descendants is touching and often funny, and is another winning film from Payne. Highly Recommended.