Review: The Descendants

The Thinker by Rodin

I can think of a couple of alternative names for The Descendants. Trouble in Paradise is the most obvious one, since the whole movie takes place in Hawaii. A Family Affair would also be appropriate, since there are family shenanigans aplenty. For those of you hoping to see lots of gorgeous pictures of Hawaii, you will get your share in this movie, including the prominently featured and beautiful island of Kauai. Mostly though it is a movie about the hazards of infidelity, with the twist that the unfaithful one ends up in a coma at the start of the movie. The unfaithful one would be Matt King’s (George Clooney) estranged wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hatsie), who we see animated only for a few seconds at the start of the movie, and who otherwise is seen only inert in a hospital bed. Elizabeth ended up this way due to a boating accident.

In short, Elizabeth leaves Matt with a hell of a mess, including two distant and emotionally disturbed teenage daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller). At first though Matt is clueless about the infidelity and spends much of his time at Elizabeth’s bedside hoping that she will eventually recover. Then he can begin the process of being a better husband and stitching their family back together again. That is not to be and Elizabeth slowly slips from a coma into brain death about the same time his daughter Alexandra tells him that Mom cheated on her with a prominent local realtor. Alexandra is housed in a boarding school on the big island on the hopes that her grades will improve there, but instead is involved in a steady relationship with Sid (Nick Krause), who has not learned the arts of tact and self-censorship. Meanwhile Scottie is channeling her stress by sending nasty text messages to classmates.

So Matt has his hands full and he feels he is inept at best trying to deal with all of it, given that his daughters are distant and often openly hostile to him. He also has his hands full with his adult cousins, who with him undeservedly have title to thousands of acres of unspoiled Hawaiian property on Kauai. This is because they are great grandchildren of the last queen of Hawaii, although all of them appear at least eighty percent Caucasian. This should be a good dilemma because selling the land will make all of them filthy rich. Matt’s role is to be the executor of the estate and to work through various issues with his cousins. A long process of deciding who they will sell the land to is reaching conclusion and virtually everyone in Hawaii has an opinion. The money would be an undeserved gift for a group of cousins who are already pretty well off.

Once Matt realizes he’s been cheated on, he becomes obsessed with finding his wife’s lover. This becomes hard to do given that he also has to give the bad news that due to his wife’s living will, he must pull the plug on her. His daughters are not happy with the decision, or his in-laws, or pretty much all their friends. In short, Matt should also be in the hospital from dealing with all the stress, but he has to uncomfortably be the adult in the room while both daughters, in-laws and friends vent their feelings about the matter and him. It makes for pretty heavy material, but Sid provides moments of comic relief. As the movie progresses, the annoying Sid becomes closer to Matt and the reasons why he connects with his daughter become understandable: they share some baggage.

As in Up in the Air and in virtually every movie he has done, Clooney proves himself again to be a deft actor in a demanding role. He does by making sure that Matt mostly buries his feelings while suffering the slings and arrows of his bad fortune. No one can really speak for his wife’s behavior except the realtor who she had an affair with, which explains why he becomes obsessed with finding him. Finding him though not only lets more emotion fly, but exposes a not too surprising plot twist as well.

No doubt about it: this is a bummer of a plot which becomes even more so as the movie progresses. Yet it does manage to sustain your interest, in part to see how Matt is going to navigate all these explosive landmines and to find out whether he will ever win the trust and respect of his daughters again. The director, Alexander Payne, also gave us the annoying and uneven 2004 movie Sideways. In some respects this movie is not too different than Sideways in that we get plenty of people with chips on their shoulders here too. What makes this movie more endurable is a better plot, more interesting and empathic characters, and a better tier of actors. You expect that Clooney’s performance will be excellent, and it is, although he is looking much more fifty-something in this movie. What perhaps really makes it work are the performances by Woodley and Miller, who play his daughters. It takes excellent acting to convincingly carry off their issues, estrangement and angst. They come across as real teenagers, something you rarely see these days in Hollywood where teenagers are buffed up, fighting aliens or falling for vampires. Any parent with teenagers will relate to Alexandra and Scottie, because they painfully model the semi-functional and taffy-pulled teen girls we encounter in the early 21st century.

The movie probably will not qualify as fun but it should draw you in easily enough into a vortex of uncomfortable topics, while giving you occasional sideways comic relief and memorable ancillary characters, like Cousin Hugh played by Beau Bridges. The frequently gorgeous tropical landscapes and Clooney’s handsomeness may keep you in your seat as well.

3.2 on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

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