Review: ‘The Descendants’

Nov. 18, 2011, 12:59 a.m.
Review: 'The Descendants'
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

The following is an honest testament to the strengths of this film, as the conditions under which I viewed it were less than ideal (the screening inexplicably began an hour late, and during it I was surrounded by grumbling middle-aged press and industry folk who resented having to stand in line for a good 30-40 minutes before being seated.) But as Alexander Payne’s comical yet poignant family drama “The Descendants” unfolded, I quickly decided that it was well worth the wait.


Adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel with a script co-written by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, “The Descendants” introduces Matt King (George Clooney), lawyer and heir to a sizeable Hawaiian land trust, as he copes with his comatose wife in the aftermath of a speedboat accident. With Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) in the hospital on life support, Matt, the self-proclaimed “back-up parent,” is suddenly thrust into the driver’s seat when it comes to taking charge of the couple’s two daughters: the potty-mouthed 10-year old Scottie (Amara Miller) and the angsty teenager Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), who immediately butts heads with her father upon returning home from boarding school.


But the family’s grieving process is thrown for a loop when Alex reveals the source of the rift between her and Liz – that for weeks now, she has been aware that her mother was having an affair. From then on, Matt and Alex (for the most part) set aside their differences and embark on a hilarious quest to discover the Other Man that, surprisingly, brings the family together in a way that never was prior to Liz’s accident. And as if Matt didn’t already have enough on his plate, as head trustee he is under extreme pressure from corporate buyers and extended family alike to make a decision about what to do with the 25,000 acres of land the Kings own on Kauai before the government intervenes.


While “The Descendants” is certainly less cynical and more accessible than Payne’s other films to date, it still bears the writer-director’s signature dry wit. That being said, the sharp writing is merely the foundation for an impeccable cast. In particular, Clooney, despite being far from a family man in real life, makes a thoroughly convincing distant father trying to reconnect with his children. Woodley also holds her ground against the veteran actor, starting out as combative opponent before transitioning to partner-in-crime. In the press conference for the film Clooney commended his younger co-star, citing the scene in which her character first finds out about Liz’s dire state as something that’s both “never been done before” and “takes real talent.”


But the unsung character that also deserves an honorable mention is Hawaii itself. Set against the backdrop of the island’s lush greenery and gorgeous landscapes, the family’s misfortunes almost seem incongruous to the physical perfection that surrounds them. Coupled with the local music used in lieu of a traditional score, the sights and sounds of the film draw the viewer deep within the island paradise.


At times funny, sad and uncomfortable, “The Descendants” is a beautifully crafted and touching story about family, love and how to piece the two back together when we need each other most.



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