George Clooney stars in a comedy drama set in Hawaii about a family facing up to bereavement and a truly first world problem involving tracts of ancestral land.
Clooney’s lawyer Matt King lives off only what he earns from his practice, as his principled father did, eschewing the vast wealth that he’s inherited from being one of the descendants of the daughter of the last King of Hawaii. His many cousins have no such scruples and squander their money on frivolous pleasures before selling another parcel of their inherited land to fund their idle lifestyles. However, a new law means they must sell off their remaining tracts in one go; and Matt as the responsible trustee has to guide his extended family away from selling to the highest bidder and towards selling to the local bidder. These machinations are rudely interrupted by his wife’s boating accident. Her living will requires that her life support be switched off and so Matt brings his wayward eldest daughter Alexandra home from boarding school to say goodbye.
Alexandra, played with considerable spark by Shailene Woodley, reveals that her mother had been cheating on, and planned to divorce, Matt. A stunned Matt quickly confirms this is true and tries to hide his secret grief as he informs everyone that his (unfaithful) wife is about to die. Robert Forster’s turn as her materialistic father is very hard to watch, as his misplaced trust in his daughter’s total devotion to Matt twists into blaming Matt for her death because he didn’t shower King money on her. Despite such potential for layered dramatic conflict The Descendants works best at its funniest moments, of which there are many. Nick Krause as Alexandra’s friend Sid is consistently hilarious, his amiable surfer dude helping her surprisingly effective buttressing of Matt’s inept attempts at parenting the troubled Scottie (Amara Miller).
Sideways director Alexander Payne coaxes good performances, including a surprisingly effective dramatic turn from Judy Greer as another betrayed spouse, but as co-writer he doesn’t inject his usual unpredictability. The 17 year old Alexandra and the 10 year old Scottie are basically Medium’s bickering but loving DuBois sisters Ariel and Brigitte. Matt’s quixotic quest to track down his wife’s lover Brian Speer uses a plot device that proudly displays a diploma from the ‘Well, Jesus, that was easy’ School of Screenwriting. The third act infuriates because it flags that a grand rom-com gesture is going to be made, which, like Clooney’s conference speech in Up in the Air, will annoy the characters attending the event interrupted by this nonsense. This film skirts dramatic deep waters to paddle in insubstantial dramedic shallows.
The Descendants illustrates the dangers of hype which also afflicted There Will Be Blood. Its Golden Globe wins promise a cracking serious comedy, but this is a decent comedy shackled to a too predictable drama.