I liked ‘The Descendants’ but didn’t love it although I blame my impression more on the mood I was in than the actual movie. The story is sad and although it is interwoven with character growth and discovery it begins sad and ends sad which is probably why it was released during the Christmas season…you know what they say about suicides during this time of year.
George Clooney is Matt King a man whose philosophy about inherited wealth is that you give your children enough that they can do something with their lives but not enough that they don’t have to do anything. This wisdom was passed onto to him from his father but apparently other family members didn’t have the same viewpoint. You see, amongst all that King has to take care of (more on that later) he is the sole trustee of a large parcel of untouched Hawaiian land that came down from a female ancestor of royal Hawaiian blood. Although he is financially independent (he is a lawyer) many of his cousins (both near and distant) either stand to profit handsomely while others hope to be pulled into a higher income bracket. As for King himself he has no strong feelings about the land either way. He likes the idea of the land remaining as it has been for the centuries, but he understands the positions of various relatives. He tells them in an early scene that he will go along with what the majority wants which is good news for them because as sole trustee his vote is the only one that matters. On a larger scaled this decision not only affects his extended family but will have an impact on Hawaii as a whole. However, the land issue has to take a backseat because his wife is in a coma due to a boating accident.
The audience only sees the wife as an alive and lively character in the opening scene while she is riding in a boat with the wind in her hair; the impression given that she loves what she is doing. For the rest of the film she is in a hospital bed, her hands clutching some support as she remains unresponsive to the world happening around her. King admits that he hasn’t been the best parent to his two daughters but now he has to step up to bat especially after his wife’s doctor informs him that she is going to die. To complicate matters he learns from his eldest that the reason she had a falling out with her mother was because she caught her cheating on him.
‘The Descendants’ examines the concept of family and forgiveness. Within the storyline King realizes that his daughters are both shocking in their behavior and sturdier in their emotions than he first thought.
The acting was great. Clooney is being touted as a possible Oscar contender. I wasn’t blown over by his performance, but if he is nominated I won’t proclaim it as a sign of the oncoming apocalypse of the Academy Awards. Shailene Woodley as King’s teenage daughter acts her way into stardom. When we first see her she is a surly teen with major mama issues that aren’t taking a vacation despite her mother’s current condition. In one amazing scene King tells her the hard truth that her mother is going to die soon and she begins her grieving process by doing an angst driven underwater lap in the pool. Within the story she goes from being a brat to being her father’s biggest ally.
Omaha, Nebraska native Alexander Payne not only directed but also wrote the screenplay along with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Payne tends to specialize in smaller films that examine the quieter elements of the human condition. As with most of his projects, ‘The Descendants’ displays humor even in situations where a mother is dying while in a coma. It is a smart story, but it deals with depressing issues and if I have any complaint it would be that I’m tired of sad films coming out this time of year while you are putting up the holiday tree.
I would recommend ‘The Descendants’ but think it would perhaps play better on the smaller screen than the larger especially when there are several fun event films currently showing.