It’s paradise, the permanent vacation that everyday Joes and the working stiffs dream about, but for our middle aged hero (George Clooney), it’s all historical significance and personal heartache. After a horrible boating accident, Matt King’s athletic, overachieving wife has fallen into a coma and her situation has caused even more strain between the distant, workaholic father and his daughters – boarding school housed teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and underage urchin Scottie (Amara Miller). Making matters even more complicated is the impending sale of some ancestral land on one of the main Hawaiian islands. For the collective of cousins and other relatives looking to cash in, Matt is the man with the strategy, and the legal skills, to seal the deal. Still, another secret threatens to destroy his already fragile grip on affairs, both personal and professional.
Thus we have the set-up for another classic Clooney exploration of older man angst. Like Up in the Air, Alexander Payne’s The Descendants (based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings) takes the iconic Hollywood star, dulls his matinee idol machismo, and turns him into a diligent doormat trying to pull himself out from under his various concerns. Most close to home is the issue with his wife and children. He eventually learns that his so-called perfect spouse was having an affair, and even worse, had fallen in love with her new paramour. Sparing the information from her family, Matt is viewed as a disconnected provider who never took advantage of the unique place in Hawaiian history (he is directly related to the last daughter of King Kamehameha) to complete cash in. Instead, he’s all ethos and earnest loss.
Aside from the millions the clan inherited, they also own pristine property in a undeveloped area of the islands. With Matt in charge of the trust, he is the subject of speculation and the hard sell from the rest of the King concerns. The news of the affair, as well as the impending deal to sell, has our lead looking back and beyond, the kind of non-cinematic struggle that should sink a dramatic comedy. But thanks to Payne, who played a similar set of cards in films like About Schmidt and Sideways, a combination of local color and careful casting creates a fascinating meditation on what it means to be part of a group and how the status quo is never the proper path in life. For Matt, his idyllic island existence is shattered by situations both indicative and in spite of who he is. He thought he was doing everything right. Turns out, his version of proper flies directly in the face of everyone else.
Payne sets up the story in standard road movie fashion. Clooney wants to meet the man his wife was involved with, and while trying to locate him, he also maneuvers between close relatives (Robert Forester, Beau Bridges) and the changing face of the island. All the while, Alexandra and Scottie act like a girl power Greek Chorus, trying to get their father to focus on what’s important. In an unusual move, the adolescents side with their dad, immediately taking his side in the adultery angle. Sure, they blame him for chasing their mom away, but her decision to dump the family and take up with a sleazoid real estate agent (Matthew Lillard) forces their immature hand. Along the way, Payne provides a constant backdrop of Hawaiian highlights, music and memorable vistas which underscore the preservationist subtext of the narrative.
Still, the best thing here is Clooney, cleverly dropping some of his man’s man mannerisms to make Matt less of an idea and more of a human. As one of the few actors who can traverse the line between sophisticated and stunted, The Descendants delivers on the promise of his part. At first, we fault him as well, joining the chorus condemning his decision to maintain a certain level of disconnect. But then Matt begins to see the error in those ways. Instead, he opens up, realizes where he made mistakes, and tries to make amends within the structures already set. That means we get moments of father-child bonding, in-law suspicion, and communal concern. Even as the money hungry cousins cajole him into playing ball in their specific pecuniary park, Matt is a man making decisions for himself – perhaps for the first time.
The supporting players add the necessary spark to spur Clooney onward. Both Ms. Woodley and Ms. Miller are excellent at being believably bratty, while Forester gets a couple of powerful speeches. Lillard, when he finally arrives, shows off his scoundrel nature perfectly, and when his meek, mousy wife (Judy Greer) reaches out where her lying husband can’t – or won’t – her mea culpa is memorable indeed. Better still, Payne rounds things out with the state of Hawaii circa 2011, a place populated by tourists and the escape artists, the locals and the illegitimate. Though he has a deep rooted relationship with the islands, Matt has never really felt ‘part’ of them. This mid-life crisis adventure changes all that.
The result is an emotionally charged epiphany which draws both audience and actors together. By the end, when Matt is announcing his decision concerning the trust, we see where things are going and couldn’t agree more. Along the way, we’ve laughed and cried, scratched our heads and sat uncomfortably for the inevitable dressing down. Discovery is never easy, especially when so much of your history is known. As the descendent from a long lineage of Hawaiian royalty, Matt King never had much to worry about. Even as a sell-out, he strives to secure the family name. Now, as the sole adult member of his own personal ancestry, he’s in trouble. The abandonment of these birthrights make for a new way in this lush oasis. For once, it’s the right way.