‘THE DESCENDANTS’ REVIEW: There’s trouble in paradise

Shailene Woodley and George Clooney in 'The Descendants,' a new film by Alexander Payne -- Photo courtesy of Merie Wallace / Fox Searchlight

The opening image of Alexander Payne’s new film, The Descendants, is of an attractive woman water skiing just off the coast of Hawaii. She looks happy, thrilled and in her element.

The picture fades to a blackout, and the audience comes to realize that something horrible has happened.

George Clooney, in one of his finest roles, plays Matt King, a wealthy lawyer trying to keep his family together in the beautiful terrain of Hawaii. His younger daughter (Amara Miller) has a foul mouth and trouble respecting authority. His older daughter (Shailene Woodley) is no better; she routinely breaks the rules at her boarding school and grows close to older men.

In the past, Matt could ignore some of his family’s eccentricities by focusing on his law practice and family’s trust fund, which includes miles of pristine, untouched coastline. All Matt has to do is sign on the dotted line and a developer will take over the family’s land and make the Kings and their cousins extremely rich.

But all is not the same, and will never be again.

The lady in the opening shot was Matt’s wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie). It was a bad boating accident, one that left her in a coma with little hope for recovery. When the doctor tells Matt to prepare for the worst, he takes it as a chance to send off his wife in the proper manner, with the support of her friends and family.

But what he doesn’t know, not until his oldest daughter finally tells him, is that his wife had been carrying on an affair and was planning to leave him. Taking the revelation like a punch to the gut, Matt decides to track down the other man (Matthew Lillard) and discover the truth.

The Descendants is not a comedy. Unfortunately, much of its advertising campaign has been focused on the exotic Hawaiian landscape and the “Father Knows Best” details of the story line. A more accurate portrayal is that The Descendants is a depressing tale that intimately shows a family and its ability (or inability) to deal with strife. It’s exceptional filmmaking and proves to be one of Payne’s strongest films, but it’s still quite a tear-jerking experience to endure.

Clooney gives a layered performance that is detailed in its richness. With every new development, his face takes on an even wearier look. This is a man set to make millions off a land deal, yet everything he knew and loved is in jeopardy. The audience can see the character struggle with the careful selection of his words, with actions that seem appropriate, with his difficult time understanding the mood changes of his daughters. There’s one scene when he visits a neighbor’s house to apologize for his daughter’s behavior at school. Watch how Clooney plays the scene; there’s a real sense of disquieting unease.

In another scene, when Matt finally addresses his comatose wife about the affair, Clooney is able to create a vivid sequence that will remind viewers of Marlon Brando’s exquisite monologue in Last Tango in Paris.

Although much of the supporting work is similarly effective, Clooney is the main draw. The story isn’t about his daughters, his sick wife or his cousins. This story revolves around this one man and how much pressure he can withstand.

It’s not easy watching The Descendants. It’s not the type of movie that one rushes back in line to watch again. It’s a draining 115 minutes that features a lot of emotional breakdowns, crying and sentimental moments. Payne never plays up the melodrama, and this is in large part because of the fine script by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, based on the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings.

It doesn’t come as a surprise that the movie is based on a book. The Descendants has a very literary feel. We first hear Matt King’s voice in a descriptive, novelistic voiceover that carries us through his emotions for the rest of the movie. Many times, these storytelling techniques feel like cheap tricks to fill in the blanks for poor characterization and plotting. In The Descendants, the voiceover heightens the action and lets us creep closer to the man behind the tears.

Enough cannot be said about the locations in this movie. Hawaii doesn’t come across as another tropical island with tiny umbrellas in drinks and surfers heading out for some early-morning waves. This is probably the first movie to depict actual life on the island: what happens indoors, at parties, in law offices, in the hospital. The fact that the Kings are set to sell their land trust adds a nice allegorical measure to the film: The beauty of nature — the beauty of life — is in the hands of Matt.

Will he decide to live in the moment and cherish the gifts he has been given?

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
  • The Descendants

  • 2011

  • Directed by Alexander Payne

  • Written by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash; based on the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings

  • Starring George Clooney, Patricia Hastie, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Matthew Lillard Beau Bridges and Robert Forster

  • Running time: 115 minutes

  • Rated R for language, including some sexual references

  • Rating: ★★★★

  • Photo courtesy of Merie Wallace / Fox Searchlight

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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