***1/2 out of *****
What is it that makes the women in my life want to destroy themselves? -- Matt King
Before his wife's coma forced him to the foreground, Matt King was the "back-up parent", happily deferring to his wife in matters of child-rearing. This is hardly a unique parenting arrangement it seems, but it's only after the coma that King begins to realize the ramifications of his absence--he no longer knows his own daughters. Scotty, his youngest, is acting out in school by showing her class-mates photos of her comatose mother, while his oldest daughter, Alexandra, regularly sneaks out of her boarding school to drink and do drugs with her friends. Alex's latest boyfriend Sid, a disarmingly nonchalant stoner, seems to have been chosen solely because of how thoroughly he annoys everyone. Further complicating matters is Alexandra's revelation that Elizabeth had been involved romantically with a married real estate agent named Brian Speer. King learns later from close friends of his wife that she may well have been in love with him.
As with Payne's two films prior to The Descendants, the action centers around a middle-aged male (or near elderly, in the case of Jack Nicholson from About Schmidt) protagonist who has come to a cross-roads. Matt King is faced with two pivotal dilemmas. Foremost on his mind is his wife Elizabeth's health crisis. After it becomes clear that she will never wake from her coma, King must confront the realities of her living will, which mandates that she must be taken off life-support. Also of great concern to King, and his family at large, is an impending, multi-million dollar land deal. King must choose between selling off the inheritance of his ancestors (he can trace his family line back to the granddaughter of King Kamehameha, who famously united the Hawaiian Islands) or keeping the untouched land in the family, preserving it for future generations of Kings. King's myriad assortment of cousins circle the approaching sale like buzzards surround carrion in the desert.
This film's primary concern is Matt King's evolving relationship with his two daughters. Traveling to tell friends and family the bad news about Elizabeth and an island-hopping search for the philandering Brian Speer serve as a backdrop for examining how this diminished family deals with its grief. King wanders aimlessly through the verdant paradise, where the beauty around him only highlights the depths of his pain and bewilderment. His life is complicated even further when he discovers that his wife's past indiscretions and his upcoming land deal might be connected in quite surprising ways.
As is usual of Alexander Payne, The Descendants' greatest strength is its surprisingly complex and unconventional tableau of characters. At the center of course is George Clooney--who in the past few years has somehow managed the transition from mere movie star to multi-faceted Oscar winner with ease. With The Descendants he adds another fine entry to his increasingly impressive oeuvre. Muting his near irrepressible charm (or smarm, depending on who you ask), Clooney is entirely believable as a man set upon by an unimaginably complex set of pressures and problems which threaten to swallow him whole. With this complicated situation comes a difficult blend of emotions: uncertainty, anger, betrayal, sadness and fear. One can easily see these emotions flit subtly across Clooney's face. As his Matt King tries, quite poorly, to suppress them, they are buried there painfully in his eyes.
Alex and Scotty, Matt King's wayward daughters, also manage deftly to avoid classic stereotypes. Alexandra though playing the part angry, rebellious daughter is never combustible. Indeed, it's easy to see how her contempt for her mother and father might be entirely justified. Elizabeth, established throughout the film as sociable and danger-seeking, carried on an affair without a second thought to how it might affect her children. Matt King, on the other hand, was so consumed by his work as a lawyer that he may well have pushed her away, and alienated the children, in the first place. Alex is not spiteful, but is disappointed in her parents, having discovered them to be guilty of the worst crime any parent can commit: being human like the rest of us. Woodley never hits a false note, playing Alex with a surprising intelligence and biting wit. Amara Miller's Scotty manages to be a surprisingly perceptive 10 year old without any Dakota Fanning-esque adult-like pretentiousness.
The supporting characters are just as concrete and believable as the leads. Robert Forster's cantankerous, grief-stricken father provides both the film's funniest--when he punches the indelicate Sid in the face--and saddest--when saying a silent goodbye to his daughter--moments. Judy Greer, fresh off countless thankless roles in a nearly endless series of rom-coms, is perhaps the most surprising character of all. She manages her character's contradictory series of emotions with a shocking aplomb. Even Nick Krause's easy-going serenely stupid Sid is endowed with surprising depths. Rounding out the supporting cast is the affable Beau Bridges (who looks eerily like a more hastily assembled version of his younger brother Jeff), as Matt King's conniving Cousin Hugh... desperate for the sale of their pristine land to be completed as soon as possible.
The Descendants, based on a book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, is a story that caters perfectly to Alexander Payne's strengths. Few directors working today can balance light comedy with heavier subjects as deftly as Payne can. However, in doing so, the story also exposes Payne's limits. In Matt King, Payne's previous creations of Warren Schmidt (About Schmidt) and Miles (Sideways) echo a little too loudly. And while The Descendants' most powerful moments are its quietest ones (Matt King and his daughters sadly and silently surveying their gorgeous tract of land, the aforementioned moment between a father and his comatose daughter), yet Payne insists on peppering the film with a lot of narration and monologue from Clooney. Considering how much Clooney manages to convey with a glance or a shrug or a sigh, much of it seems needless at best, distracting at worst. However, that this is Payne's most accomplished film yet hints that he is still maturing as a filmmaker and suggests that the best is just yet to come.