The Descendents follows a father who is dealing with the potential loss of his wife while also negotiating the sale of his family’s land. George Clooney plays Matt King who is a lawyer and somewhat of a workaholic. He is obviously estranged from his family and it becomes even more painfully obvious when he has to start taking care of his two daughters, Alexandra and Scottie (played by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller). The story takes a bunch of twists and turns but for the most part it stays with those three (and sometimes includes Alexandra’s hilarious sidekick, Sid). At first the three have to deal with the loss of their mother but then a shocking truth is revealed and the whole family dynamic is changed forever. What follows is three (and sometimes four) individuals on the search for someone who has destroyed King’s allusion of his normal life. The real fun of the Descendents is watching King and his two daughters bond as they travel around Hawaii. Sometimes painfully funny and sometimes painfully sad, The Descendents is a wide range of emotions. I don’t think it is a movie that explores new ground but it does enjoy being a family drama. It is always about the unit who finds closure with each other. From a frustrating beginning to a heartwarming conclusion, the Descendents is a wonderful look at people and the souls that are attached to them. Then there is Hawaii who settles in the background as a glaring reminder of things easily forgotten.
The Descendents may catch your eye because of George Clooney but for me it marked the first film by Alexander Payne in 7 years. His previous works such as “Sideways” and “About Schmidt” were two excellent dramedies about men who were in the way of their own happiness. The Descendents is similar to those two films as Payne creates colorful characters built around a lonely and somewhat pathetic man. The difference between The Descendents and Payne’s last two films is that the Descendents is more optimistic. Not only is the tone not as dark but also the events of the film and the outcome are very hopeful opposed to the ambiguity of the two mentioned films. This is a nice change for Payne who has crafted a very amusing light hearted film. It may not be as good as his previous works but it is a nice edition to it.
The performances of the ensemble here is pretty solid but nothing spectacular. Clooney is great in the role of Matt as he tries to make sense of the events that have recently plagued his life. There is a sense of bewilderment in his performance almost as if King is starting to become apart of a world far from his own. The rest of the cast is funny and at times poignant as they inhibit the beautiful countryside of Hawaii. The only other performance that I found amusing was that of Shailene Woodley who was last seen in that really bad teenage soap opera on ABC Family. I guess I grew a sort of distain for her being in the film from the first trailers but she sheds off the melodrama and is enjoyable as the rebel daughter. Her performance could have easily become annoying and frustrating but Woodley’s performance is charming as well as entertaining. The film sort of relies on her and Clooney’s progressing interactions as the film goes on and both play off each other quite well.
I have ignored one key plot point of the film throughout this review and that would be our main character’s decision to keep his family’s land or sell it. This plot point may own the title but it sort of just lingers throughout the movie until it resurfaces at the end. It isn’t the most interesting thing about the movie but it is a nice touch. I think this plot point or dare I say “sub plot” works parallel to the story of Matt and his family. Both his family and the land have been in his life for a long time and he has placed both numerous times on the back burner. The Descendents is about discovering those things that are always around, things that we take for granted and things that we never fully accept. Matt King goes through a lot here as he deals with the death of his wife and selling land that has always belonged to him and his family. Life isn’t perfect and sometimes it drags us places we don’t want to go but maybe what Matt King learns out of all of this is how to hold on to things close by to weather the storm. Matt King may not know it but while he loses his wife, in a weird sort of way, he has also gained his daughters, who have been there all along.