Co-writer and director Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Sideways) adapts Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel and executes one hell of a charismatic story. You may not feel it right away for this 115 minute flick postures with a depressing tone in the opening segments. And when its true tonal colors to begin to weave its way in, there may be some awkwardness to the situation. But if you can just roll with it, The Descendants becomes quite the comical telling that has a perfect blend of characters to sell the surprising direction.
Taking place on the islands of Oahu and Kauai, Matt King (George Clooney) has two heavy decisions weighing on his shoulders. First one revolves around selling a prime piece of real estate that has been part of his family for countless generations. Being a lawyer, and named the head trustee to the land, he does have to answer to his assortment of cousins who all will get a piece of the pie if the land is sold. Some want Matt to give it to the highest bidder, while others urge him to respect the land and not sell it off to someone who will turn it into a circus (Wal-Mart’s, hotels, golf courses, etc.).
On the other shoulder lies his comatose wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie). Her adventurous spirit has caught up with her so to speak, as she was a victim of a terrible boating accident. Besides struggling with the thought of losing his beloved wife, Matt is clueless about how to handle his two daughters in the 17 year-old wild child, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and the impressionable 10 year-old, Scottie (Amara Miller). Matt leans on Alexandra for guidance and although she resists him at first, she reveals something that brings the family closer together…and also tears one of them – and the possible real estate deal – apart.
Despite the downer nature of the above synopsis, this is a light and sprightful journey that will get the audience laughing more times than they would expect. The two daughters are inappropriately outspoken, in what looks to be tender situations, that one can’t help embracing the style the filmmakers were going for. Even though it’s a rough entrance into this tone, both elements (serious and playful) end up clicking. Clooney also gets into the act and is able to showcase his full range of talents as he’s asked to be reflective and borderline aloof when reacting to his daughters’ behavior. This tone gets cemented, and subtly enhanced, with the addition of Alexandra’s easy-going surfer friend, Sid (Nick Krause), who goes along with the family as they work things out.
Also accompanying the lively characters is a relaxing Hawaiian musical score that can act as the glue to the injected tone that can seem out of place numerous times. There are obviously gorgeous shots of Hawaii laced throughout this piece. And while those are always nice to take in, our good director doesn’t overdue it, for he does have a substantial story to tell. Therefore, the, for a lack of a better term, gritty shots of the paradise state are also worked into this screenplay. It’s not playtime with umbrella drinks floating around 24/7. Even though that’s not a pertinent theme, it does fill in the gaps and places some perspective on the story being told.
Overall, The Descendants is simply an enjoyable film with laugh-out-loud moments when you least expect them. George Clooney’s candid performance shines brightly and can lift your spirits all while giving perspective on life. This is a prime example of complete storytelling fit for the big-screen.
The Descedants is rated R and opens in the Tampa Bay market on November 23rd.