By Monte Lazarus
At the very beginning of this engrossing film, “The Descendants” Matt King (George Clooney) cautions us that Hawaii is not the total paradise we mainliners think it is. Matt is neither poor nor deprived. On the contrary, he is a hugely successful real estate lawyer, a descendant of generations of haoles (whites) and native Hawaiians, a member of an exclusive beach club and very well-off certainly by Hawaiian standards. Matt, however, is personally “thrifty”…he drives a small Honda; he lives in a modest home and he dresses in Aloha shirts and casual slacks. We learn immediately that Matt’s wife is in a coma, the result of a boating accident. Most of the film pivots on that point.
Matt is a family man, but he’s detached. He even describes himself as a “back-up parent”. His youngest daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller) is a mixed-up 10 year old. His older daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) is a 17 year old, into booze and drugs and angry with her mother beyond “normal” teen hostility. Alex has been shuffled off to a very expensive private school. As a result of the accident, Matt’s thrust into something completely foreign. He has to cope with his wife’s condition and learn how to be a parent. When he learns that his wife’s coma is irreversible, he finds out that he has been a cuckold, and that his wife has been conducting an affair with a very ambitious real estate agent.
While in the middle of a personal family tragedy, Matt must also deal with his responsibility as trustee for a magnificent, unspoiled property on the Island of Kauai. The property is eagerly sought by developers who want to build the usual golf course, hotel, condos and the works. Most of Matt’s many cousins, scattered among the islands, want to cash in on the huge profits from the sale. Not only that, the property appears to be subject to the ancient legal Rule Against Perpetuities (the bane of every law student’s existence) and the property may have to be divested or otherwise dealt with in two years.
At an almost leisurely pace this superb film deals with a main plot and subplots, and with tragedy interspersed with moments of brilliant comedy (Matt running like a mad stork down a road), without getting maudlin or over-the-top. Clooney is magnificent as the indecisive, sometimes bumbling Matt who makes mistakes along the way, while learning to cope with a family tragedy while balancing his decision about what to do with the trust property. He conveys bewilderment, anger, determination and resolve with keen underplaying. He’s nothing short of brilliant.
Every performance in this film is outstanding – from the two daughters who must cope with the loss of a mother and dealing with an often hapless father, to a Robert Forster as a perpetually angry father-in-law, to Beau Bridges in a cameo as one of Matt’s myriad cousins. Shailene Woodley is superb as Alex who emerges as a tough, tender teen who becomes Matt’s support. The unhurried direction of Alexander Payne avoids both the pitfalls of over-sentimentality and farce.