The Descendants opens with a boating accident. It follows with a George Clooney, as the character Matt King, voice-over: “My friends on the mainland think, because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise. Are they nuts?”
No kidding—the boating accident is only the beginning. Matt’s list of things he’d rather avoid includes an unfaithful wife (Patrica Hastie), a troubled 17-year-old daughter (Shailene Woodley), a mildly unstable 10-year-old daughter (Amara Miller), and some cousins (led by Beau Bridges) who want to sell family land—claimed through a distant relation to Princess Margaret Ke’alohilani—to a resort developer.
Co-writer and director Alexander Payne throws this plot at us in the first nearly insufferable 30 minutes of The Descendants. But good news: After all the exposition and some distractingly bad acting by a couple of secondary characters, the quietly serpentine story unfolds, untangles and draws us in.
Payne has made a career of filling his films with characters so off-putting that, if you knew them in real life, you’d punch them. Sometimes it works (Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick in Election), and sometimes it doesn’t (Paul Giamatti in Sideways—I know I’m in the minority opinion on that film).
The Descendants works. Payne fires on all thrusters, and Clooney delivers the kind of nuanced and utterly believable performance that most movie stars never quite pull off. He makes us care for Matt, a deeply flawed man trying to do right only because circumstances dictate he must.
The boating accident leaves Matt’s wife, Elizabeth, in a coma. She’ll never recover, and her living will dictates she be removed from life support.
Though Matt has always kept his daughters at a distance—“I’m the back-up parent, the understudy,” he says—he has to tell them that their mother will die and, worse, that he himself will parent them. He enlists the older daughter, Alexandra, to help him deal with Elizabeth’s father (a good, if massively annoying, Robert Forster).
Luckily, the story threads tie together organically, making Payne one of few directors who crafts coincidence as believable as it seems real life.
Payne also skillfully meets and then subverts our expectations. When Matt manufactures the meeting with his wife’s lover, Brian Speer (a sheepish Matthew Lillard), he does it to get answers, not to save face or to stir up things between Brian and his wife (Judy Greer).
Likewise, Alexandra first appears to be a rotten teenager seething with rage at her mom and dad, but she turns out to be unexpectedly deep and regretful. She becomes her father’s ally when he needs her most.
How things end probably won’t surprise anyone, but the end isn’t quite the point; self-discovery is. And though the path toward it moves painfully along, it may also edge Matt closer to that mythic paradise that exists in the minds of his mainland friends.
Directed by Alexander Payne
With George Clooney, Patricia Hastie, Shailene Woodley,
Robert Forster, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Beau Bridges and Amara Miller