I came into this movie as a huge fan of writer/director/producer Alexander Payne‘s other films, including Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways. I love the darkness of the comedy and the sharpness of the societal satire. I find the world that he portrays bleak, often depressing, but always hilarious.
So I was very much looking forward to a similar experience with The Descendants, the story of Matt King (George Clooney), a lawyer living in Hawaii, whose wife is in a coma following a boating accident. King must negotiate his strained relationship with his two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller), as well as facilitate a massive sale of untouched Hawaiian land that has been in King’s family for generations. The story is further complicated when King learns that his wife had been carrying out a long-term affair prior to her accident.
Like both About Schmidt and Sideways, much of The Descendants takes place on the road, as King, his daughters, and his older daughter’s slacker surfer friend (Nick Krause) travel the Hawaiian islands, visiting with King’s family to discuss the land deal, King’s wife’s family to discuss her imminent death (we learn early on that she has a Do Not Resuscitate claus to her will), stalking his wife’s lover, and visiting the land in question, the ancestral homeland of his family. This theme is effective, as the viewer gets to see King’s frazzled mindset as he juggles the many simultaneously unraveling factors of his life. The movie delivers on many of the expectations that I had going in, and fans will enjoy the dark yet comedic moods that they’ve come to expect.
Clooney offers a new take on the Paynesian protagonist. We’re used to seeing characters that are some combination of old, ugly, depressed, bumbling, or schlubby, but Clooney is none of the above. I worried that it would be difficult for a man accustomed to portraying the handsome hero to step into this role, but Clooney does so admirably. The fact that King is in general a competent human (albeit a slightly oblivious husband and father) makes the chaos of his life in this film all the more poignant.
The subject matter is dark and story leaves plenty of room for introspection, but the mood stays surprisingly light throughout – at least compared to other Payne films. Part of this is due to the Nick Krause character, who is nothing more than a surfer caricature, with a voice and personality straight out of a Bill and Ted movie. The moment you meet him in the movie, you laugh for a bit, then quickly tire of him, then groan as you realize that he will be present in every single scene for the rest of the movie. Aside from the fact that it is utterly unbelievable that King’s character would have tolerated his presence, the character is a constant distraction that prevents you from becoming more deeply immersed in the story. His intended redemption scene is not nearly enough to justify his role in this movie. (In Krause’s defense, his acting is spot on with the role that was given to him, and I would perhaps have appreciated this character in another movie, but here he was simply out of place.)
The biggest mystery is the film’s title, which predicts an emphasis reflection on the family’s heritage (King is descended from Hawaiian royalty, hence the land being in his family), but this plot line is largely secondary. You see King struggle with his decision of whether or not to sell the land, but it is unclear how or whether his decision is influenced by his ancestral ties to the islands, nor how this lineage affects his two daughters. I would have liked to see this element of the story explored more deeply throughout the film.
On the whole, the film delivers. Clooney is predictably excellent, as is Shailene Woodley, who plays the oldest of his two daughters. With the exception of Krause’s character, the script is tight and the multiple story lines are in general well-woven. I must admit, of the four Payne films that I’ve now seen, this is my least favorite, but I suppose it’s a pretty good barrel to be at the bottom of.