The Descendants

Matt King, married to wife Elizabeth and father of two girls, suddenly finds himself as the sole guardian of his daughters after his wife slips into a coma following a freak boating accident. 10-year-old Scottie and 17-year-old Alex are not the idyllic children every parent dreams of. They are rebellious and disrespectful of authority. In the wake of this tragedy, Matt must simultaneously contend with 25,000 acres of unspoiled Hawaiian land. You see he’s the main titleholder, inherited as a descendant of white missionaries and Hawaiian royalty,

George Clooney is used to playing assertive, suave, debonair types. But his character here is none of those things. Granted he’s playing a wealthy lawyer, so we know he’s successful, but in his relationship with his children, he’s rather impotent. He’s exasperated with their casual profanity and lack of courtesy. He’s cast against type, but the unexpected role becomes a highlight of his career. The imperfections are freeing for him because they allow him to be vulnerable. In one memorable scenario, Matt is informed of some particularly distressing news by his oldest daughter – Shailene Woodley in an arresting performance.  Brazenly contrasting against the seriousness of the scene, Clooney immediately runs, ridiculously with arms flailing, to his friends’ home to confirm the news. The image is the very opposite of cool.

If Clooney has an equal in the picture, I’d say it is the state of Hawaii itself. The plot has Matt wrestling with the decision of what to do with the expanse of natural wonders that have been entrusted to his care. There is a genuine love for the state of Hawaii here that has nothing to do with stereotypical associations like hula dancing or surfing. The naturally gorgeous, quiet landscape beautifully underscores the various interactions between these people, giving the drama a relaxed vibe that feel like real life. It’s authentic and unpretentious. Featuring a collection of classic Hawaiian ‘slack-key’ music stars on the soundtrack, the largely acoustic guitar score also perfectly supports the film’s melancholy tone.

The Descendants is not a revelatory account. It feels like a made for TV movie concerning a family in crisis, but it’s an extremely well acted, straightforward story. How the plot ultimately ends isn’t really as important as the introspective journey in getting there. There’s no one single revelatory display that will shake you emotionally. It’s the many individual scenes where George Clooney interacts with assorted key people, that will involve you. Director Alexander Payne’s darkly humorous, almost mocking, representation of contemporary American society is perceptible here, but it’s much more traditional here than in his other movies. He’s done better work: Both Election and About Schmidt went to surprising places I didn’t expect the narrative to go. The Descendants is a bit more predictable. That still doesn’t negate the fact that this is a superlative human drama that is steeped in the frequent hardships of everyday existence.

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12 Responses to “The Descendants”

  1. I must admit, I’m not a big George Clooney fan, but this was quite good. It seemed like a different character for him. He seemed very real. The supporting cast was also quite good. Not my movie of the year, but top 10.

  2. Nice review, Mark! I’m looking forward to watching this film. I’ve been reading a lot of praise for George Clooney, Shailene Woodley and Judy Greer and also for the script.

  3. Great review! I was planning on seeing this film after I read the book on which it is based.

  4. It sounds as if you liked the film more than your final rating suggests. I think it’s my favorite film of the last two years.

    • It just felt like something I could find on TV, but it was good. I will say that I like director Alexander Payne and I’m glad he’s not letting another 7 years go between features. His next film is due this year and is tentatively titled Nebraska.

  5. martin250 Says:

    Hi mark, over a month, ive been able to catch up on last years big movies through pay per view. i might have given this one three stars. i agree it felt made for TV. i just felt that the story didn’t build up enough. i didn’t know it was the same director as About Schmidt- now that was a great movie. nice review. you explained it quite accurately.

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