Mortality isn’t one of my favorite subjects, but thankfully The Descendants injects quite a bit of humor in the morose tale of life, love and death.
Alexander Payne, director of Sideways and About Schmidt, is becoming known for his so-called dramedies (dramatic comedies). The Descendants is set in Hawaii (somewhere many dream of retiring to), but Payne’s movie is quick to point out that a pretty place is not always paradise for its residents.
The Descendants will likely bring another Oscar nomination for George Clooney, who seems to effortlessly become Matt King, a husband and father coping with his wife in a coma after a boating accident in Waikiki. Clooney has a knack for losing himself in his roles, such as in Michael Clayton and Up in the Air. He once again brings something different and unique to The Descendants.
Matt, a wealthy real estate lawyer, tells the audience that he’s always been the “backup parent.” With his wife Elizabeth unlikely to wake up from her coma, Matt is forced to step up and be a real parent to teenage daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and younger daughter Scottie (Amara Miller). Matt, a native Hawaiian with ties to Hawaiian royalty, also is dealing with a decision to sell his family land that has been handed down for generations. As an aside, it’s funny to note that the daily wardrobe of some of Hawaii’s smartest minds consists of Hawaiian shirts, shorts and flip-flops.
There is one particularly big revelation along the way, and it changes the way Matt feels about his comatose wife. This revelation sends him and his daughters on a search for real estate agent Brian Speer (Matthew Lilliard in a surprisingly serious role) to answer some questions.
The Descendants is definitely a breakout role for Shailene Woodley (from The Secret Life of the American Teenager TV show), whose angst-ridden teenager is portrayed with nice friction against Clooney’s absentee-father persona. I’d even say Woodley is deserving of a supporting-actor nomination at awards time.
The young Amara Miller does well for her first role as the rebellious child left in the dark while fearing that her sleeping mother isn’t going to wake up.
The best thing about The Descendents is the realness of it all. All of the characters are flawed, which gives them depth. There is not just one memorable moment, but many. Many scenes feel “real,” such as when Matt tells his wife’s parents that he will be pulling the plug (as per her wishes), when Elizabeth’s parents tell her goodbye, and a moment of bonding between Matt and Alexandra’s boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause). The bonding scene is particularly notable because, until that point, Sid basically had been providing most of the comic relief, but he becomes a three-dimensional character.
There are lots of emotional, tug-at-your-heartstrings moments, but I never felt like Payne goes for the jugular the way some movies about death would. You may or may not need the Kleenex.
The Descendants isn’t a typical Hollywood happily-ever-after story, but it’s worth seeing for the fantastic performances. ••
Movie Grade: B+