Alexander Payne’s movies often feature men on the edge thrown into situations approaching slapstick comedy. In 1999 there was Election, with teacher Matthew Broderick in conflict with a psychotic candidate for class president (Reese Witherspoon). In 2002, About Schmidt had a recently retired Jack Nicholson taking a journey of discovery in a Winnebago. And in 2004’s Sideways, Paul Giamatti toured the Southern California wine country while trying to control his soon-to-be-married best friend (Thomas Haden Church). Since then, he’s directed some short pieces, done some producing (Cedar Rapids), and worked on the series Hung on HBO.
After 7 years, he’s back in the directing chair with The Descendants, based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. While it’s central character is facing a life-altering moment within a semi-comedic situation, Payne has matured since Sideways. The Descendants is a dramedy with the emphasis on the first syllable, even though the marketing of the movie has highlighted the comedic element. If you’re expecting a comedy, you’ll be disappointed. My suggestion is throw out any preconceived notions and go see the movie on its own merits.
Matt King (George Clooney) is a Honolulu attorney and a direct descendant of Hawaii’s last princess. Through her, his extended family owns in trust one of the last pristine pieces of private property on Hawaii. The trust is facing a mandatory breakup in seven years, so the family is entertaining ten-figure bids from developers for the land. Matt, though, is the sole executor and has the final say on the property’s disposition.
A few weeks earlier, Matt’s wife Elizabeth was in a powerboat accident and is being kept alive by a ventilator. Her doctor has determined there’s no hope for a recovery and, bound by a living will Elizabeth signed, he must shut off the ventilator.
With Elizabeth’s death imminent, Matt’s been counseled to contact her friends and family so they can say their final goodbyes. Matt’s also struggling with his youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) who’s been acting out both at home and at school. To help with both the notification task and with Scottie, Matt picks up his eldest daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) from the boarding school she’s attending. Alexandra has done plenty of acting out herself and had recently had a major fight with her mother.
Their lives veer into a new trajectory when Matt learns Alexandra fought with Elizabeth because she caught her mother having an affair. Helped by his daughter, Matt discovers the identity of his wife’s partner, a real estate agent named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). Finding him physically proves problematic.
George Clooney does some of the best work of his career as Matt, giving an interior performance where you read his thoughts in his eyes. He’s having to both say goodbye to the complex person he loved while reaching some understanding with his children. Clooney is ably assisted by Woodley, who most recently starred as the main character on The Secret Life of the American Teenager. The search for Speer becomes a catalyst for renewal between Matt and Alexandra. Amara Miller hadn’t acted before being cast as Scottie, but she nails the role with a natural performance. Creating a foursome is Nick Krause as Sid, Alexandra’s friend who tags along with the family. While he has value as comedic relief, he also has his poignant moments.
Matthew Lillard (Scream, Scooby-Doo) had appeared in a string of forgettable movies, so it’s a pleasure to see him back in a worthwhile one. Other supporting actors stand out, such as Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) as Elizabeth’s father, Judy Greer as Speer’s wife Julie, and Beau Bridges as Matt’s cousin Hugh. Also, watch for Matt’s secretary, Noe; that’s the author of the book, Kaui Hart Hemmings.
Another character in the movie is the state of Hawaii itself. In the opening sequence, with a voice over by Clooney, the myth of paradise on the islands is swiftly destroyed by grim reality. As the movie progresses, though, the paradise that was Hawaii is rediscovered and renewed.
While the plot deals with change and loss, the strength of the movie is watching the characters pass through those moments to reach, if not a resolution, at least a peaceful coexistence with life. Amid a movie year filled with superheroes (and a weekly box office currently controlled by a universally panned vampire movie), Payne gives us a grownup movie about growing up.