Matt King, back-up parent
Hawaii’s no paradise for Matt King (Clooney), a real estate lawyer whose wife Liz (Patricia Hastie) lies in a coma after a waterskiing accident. “Hell, I haven’t been on a surfboard for 15 years,” he gripes.
Matt has been busy earning a living. He also serves as trustee of his family’s 25,000 pristine acres on Kauai’s South Shore.
Clooney is intelligent, vulnerable and charming as “the back-up parent, the understudy” who now must step up for his daughters.
Family, community and nature
Director Alexander Payne weaves the trouble in paradise theme into a personal journey that embraces family, community and the Earth. With satisfying plot twists, the story shows Matt, Alex and Scottie begin to live more from the heart, and less from the mind.
Alex (Shailene Woodley) is an angry 17-year-old who finds compassion. Scottie (Amara Miller) is a tender, volatile 10-year-old eager to grow up.
Transforming pain, loss
When Alex tells her dad that Liz was cheating on him, horror and disbelief are accompanied by upbeat ukulele music. He dons his flip-flops and runs to a neighbor’s house to find out “who my wife was … seeing.”
Elizabeth is never going to wake up, Matt learns. He must transform his own pain and sorrow, and guide his daughters through their impending loss. Sometimes falling flat as a parent, he perseveres. He genuinely loves his girls.
Matt confronts Brian
Urging extended family and friends to say goodbye to Liz, Matt hatches a plan. He and Alex track down Elizabeth’s lover, realtor Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). They discover the unexpected. Matt confronts Brian.
Impressive growth for Clooney
Clooney’s fully dimensional character is wounded but spunky. He reveals your own foibles and makes you laugh at them.
The actor played a “termination specialist” in Up in the Air; a repentant assassin in The American, and an escaped con in O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Matt presides over motley relatives who vote to sell the family land. Hippie cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges) urges him on. Among the bidders are a ritzy condo chain and a Hawaiian developer. A local mother asks Matt not to move forward with the sale.
Hawaii is a land of natives and newcomers, of privilege and struggle. Matt’s ancestors were among the islands’ first white settlers. Surveying the family photos on his office wall, you realize that his actions reflect on all of them, including a Hawaiian princess by marriage.
Woodley (The Secret Life of the American Teenager) is memorable as rebellious Alex. Slowly she begins to accept her dad and take better care of herself. Nick Krause is engaging as Alex’s dude friend Sid. Matt must come to terms with Sid and see him as more than a loser. It’s one way he learns to grow as a father.
The excellent cast includes Judy Greer, heart-tugging as Brian’s wronged wife Julie. Robert Forster plays Elizabeth’s belligerent father.
Payne assembles great team
Payne last directed the film Sideways (2004). He’s also known for Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt. His next project is a father-son drama Nebraska.
Payne, along with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, wrote the first-rate script based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel. Cinematography by Phedon Papamichael and editing by Kevin Tent marry drama and comedy. Voiceovers, so easy to overdo, are well executed by Clooney.
Family comes together
“My family seems exactly like an archipelago, always drifting apart,” Matt observes. By the end of The Descendants, Matt, Alex and Scottie achieve wholeness. (5 out of 5 stars)
The Descendants 2011 / R / 1 hour, 55 min
Cast Overview: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Nick Krause, Amara Miller, Mary Birdsong, Rob Huebel, Patricia Hastie
Director: Alexander Payne
Genre: Dramedy, Drama, Family