Film Review: The Descendants

It’s always nice to find a cultural oasis amid the plethora of remakes and formulaic junk pouring out of Hollywood but when the oasis is provided by writer/director Alexander Payne and the setting is the idyllic Hawaiian capital of Honolulu, it’s a veritable cause for joy.

Seven years have passed since Payne’s previous film, the highly successful Sideways, and it’s almost a decade since About Schmidt gave Jack Nicholson the opportunity to step down from his megastar pedestal to play a recently retired widower undertaking a road trip in what proved to be a masterful study of loneliness and old age.

In The Descendants, George Clooney is provided with a similar opportunity to break with his roguish, eternally youthful screen persona and do for middle age what Jack did for the over sixties. And I’m happy to report the opportunity isn’t squandered.

Clooney plays Matt Clark, a rich, workaholic lawyer based in Honolulu, with a wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), whose aversion to domestic tedium leads her to adrenaline-inducing pursuits (among other things). After a speedboat accident leaves her badly injured and comatose in the hospital, Matt is forced to suspend his daily routine to care for the couple’s youngest child, 10-year old Scottie (Amara Miller) and later their 17-year old semi-delinquent daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) who has been away at boarding school.

Having been told that Elizabeth will never emerge from her coma, Matt is forced to honour the terms of her living will and disconnect her support system. Before doing so, however, revelations about Elizabeth, made by Alexandra, compel Matt to enter on a journey, both physical and emotional, in search of the truth. Accompanied by his dysfunctional daughters and Alexandra’s well-meaning but dim friend, Sid (Nick Krause).

The Descendants

Besides being preoccupied with his offspring, Matt also has to deal with the legacy of his forebears. He is trustee of the family property, consisting of 25,000 acres of untrammelled land on the island of Kauai, and despite the opposition of residents, it is the intention of Matt and his cabal of cousins to sell the land for development.

The two competing concerns soon become intertwined, ultimately providing Matt with a solution to both dilemmas.

It may not sound like much fun but there are plenty of laughs along the way. Most of them arising from disarmingly subtle situations. There are no pratfalls. No absurd situations. It’s character-based humour and the nearest it gets to broad comedy is when Sid’s social ineptitude leads him into trouble.

Despite the presence of a character who spends all but one brief sequence wired-up to a life support machine, it is never downbeat. Even in some of the more emotionally taut sequences, humour is never far below the surface. The younger cast members are all excellent with Woodley making the most of her lion’s share and there are even opportunities for scene-stealing appearances by old stagers Robert Forster as Elizabeth’s garrulous father and Beau Bridges as a senior member of the King family. Continue reading →