Fox Searchlight Pictures
"The Descendants" is a tough movie to describe to casual moviegoers. There's George Clooney, yes, and a gorgeous Hawaiian setting. But you can't just say, "He's a big landowner on the brink of an enormous sale," or even "His wife is in a coma and he learns she's had an affair." Those plotlines seem so random and unrelated, not the kind of thing to make a casual film fan rush to the box office.
They should rush, though. Clooney is amazing in "The Descendants," playing a role unusual to him, that of family man. The perennial Sexiest Man Alive candidate somehow sinks into the role of schlumpy dude. Just the way he walks, with a hint of belly hanging over ill-fitting khakis, makes him believable as Matt King, a lawyer and dad of two who was just fine with his role of backup parent until his wife Elizabeth's boating accident.
His daughters, 10-year-old Scotty and 17-year-old Alexandra, are mouthy and too wise for their years. Their father obviously wasn't around much and it doesn't seem their mother had much of a calming effect on them either. You feel for them, though, once you see that their father barely touches them. He even tells Alexandra that her mother won't make it while the girl treads water alone in their untended pool, never reaching out to her once the news sinks in.
But Alex has shocking information for her dad, too. She breaks the news that her mother was cheating, and the two become obsessed with finding the man involved. At the same time Matt's emotional world is shattering, so, too, he must move forward on an enormous financial decision, selling pristine Hawaiian land that's been in his family for generations and whose sale will make him and his many cousins very rich. Yet there are deeper considerations than the big payday. Matt's uncomfortable about the idea of selling off the paradise that's been like another family member, land he did nothing to earn and was perhaps only guarding for future generations.
Director Alexander Payne, as he did in "Sideways," manages to deftly connect the plotlines, the idea that Matt's personal world is shattering as he struggles with the enormity of how his land sale will reverberate. The Hawaiian land, lying untouched as Matt prepares to turn it over to developers, and woven through with family memories, is like a child he has yet to destroy.
And the movie goes in unexpected directions. Just when it seems as if Matt and his daughter must live as silent martyrs with the knowledge of Elizabeth's affair, they're suddenly not alone in their knowledge, and that somehow makes all the difference.
The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, with Beau Bridges popping up as one of Matt's soon-to-be-wealthy cousins, and Robert Forster as his angry father-in-law. The young actresses who play Clooney's daughters, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller, make their characters' emotions and dialogue feel real. I especially liked Nick Krause as Alexandra's stoner pal Sid, who both drives Matt crazy and gives him some solid perspective. "We deal with our (stuff) by talking about other stuff," he tells him. And somehow that stuff all ties together.
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