How well do we really know the people we live with? Daily obligations often pull us in different directions. Losing touch happens all too easily. We think we will have an opportunity to put things right later. What if later never comes?
That’s the situation Matt King (George Clooney) finds himself facing in Alexander Payne’s gem of a film, The Descendants. King, a lawyer, lives in Hawaii (not the paradise everyone believes it is, he tells us in the film’s introduction), a direct descendant of island royalty. As trustee for his family’s land, a priceless piece of tropical beach that remains untouched by development, Matt wrestles with the decision of whether to sell or somehow seek a way to extend the trust beyond its seven-year expiration. While wealth has never been important to Matt—the family cottage is modest, even rundown—his numerous cousins, anticipating a bonanza, pressure him to cash in.
Consumed with his law practice and the family’s trust, Matt looses touch with his wife, Elizabeth, and two daughters, Scottie, 10, and Alexandra, 17. When Elizabeth is seriously injured in a boating accident and winds up in a coma, Matt must relinquish his role as “backup” and step in to parent the two daughters he barely knows.
Despite being emotionally unavailable to his immediate family, Matt never doubts that he loves them and that they return those feelings. He receives the wake up call when Alexandra reveals that Elizabeth was having an affair. Elizabeth’s best friend not only confirms the affair but also adds that Elizabeth was going to ask Matt for a divorce.
Consumed with grief, Matt first takes out his anger on a comatose Elizabeth, then occupies himself with tracking down his wife’s lover. With his two daughters and one of his daughter’s friends in tow, they skip from island to island in a sometimes sad, often funny road trip. Along the way, he reconnects with his two daughters and discovers that he is slowly rebuilding his family. He also is able to forgive Elizabeth, saying a heartfelt goodbye.
What a year Clooney is having. Among Hollywood’s A-list actors, he continues to select roles that showcase his range and talents. As a presidential candidate in Ides of March, he was in control, arrogant. As Matt King, he is out of control, unsure. Unshaven, clad in gaudy Hawaiian shirts, we see a man whose life is unraveling. His facial expressions can’t quite conceal his pain, whether from a daughter’s back talk or a friend’s well-meaning yet unfortunate condolence.
Clooney is supported by a trio of talented young actors who nearly walk away with the film. Shailene Woodley, last seen in The Secret Life of the American Teenager, continues to corner the market on adolescent angst. Her last encounter with her mother was to argue about the affair. Unable to reconcile with Elizabeth, she does penance by taking care of her younger sister, Scottie, an adorable Amara Miller. Woodley hits all the right notes as a young woman trying to appear grown up, but still longing for adult supervision. As the slacker, Sid, Nick Krause provides more than enough comic relief. This is one young actor to watch. (And from his bio we learn that he attended college when he was ten, making his transformation into the vacuous Sid even more amazing).
Beau Bridges has a memorable role as one of the greedy, seedy cousins. Robert Forster is perfect as Elizabeth’s angry and heartbroken dad.
Brian Speer, Elizabeth’s married lover, played by Matthew Lillard, seems clueless about the events he has put into action. What Elizabeth regarded as a true love affair, he saw as a fling. Confronted in a rented cottage, owned ironically by one of the King cousins, he seems more concerned with getting caught than with Elizabeth dying. Julie Speer (Judy Greer) comes to the hospital to “meet” Elizabeth, unleashing her anger, unsure where her marriage will end up.
Matt, at least, has closure. In the end, he finds his own paradise, surprised to find that it is indeed in Hawaii.