After the success of "Sideways," director Alexander Payne took his time finding the write project to direct as a follow up to 2004’s wine-soaked film. Once again adapting a book, this time "The Descendants" by Kaui Hart Hemmings, Payne has triumphantly returned to the big screen, proving that quality beats quantity every time.
Set against the paradisiacal backdrop of Hawaii, "The Descendants" finds Matt King (George Clooney) having a less than idyllic time. His wife is in a coma with a will that states that she doesn’t want to be kept on life support, which would leave him to take care of his two daughters as a widower. As if that isn’t stressful enough, Matt is a real estate lawyer who is also the executor to the family’s real estate holdings, which include a large parcel of virgin land on an adjacent island that - if sold - would make everyone wealthy.
He also learns his wife is having an affair and is contemplating divorcing him. Egged on by his eldest daughter, he sets out to find the man who is cuckolding him - a married real estate agent (played by Matthew Lillard, who after years spent in goofy comedies and "Scooby Doo" movies, is hard to take seriously in the role he’s been cast).
At its heart, "The Descendants" is a dramedy about a man and his daughters all coming together and re-discovering their bond in the face of a horrible tragedy. What makes the film so remarkable is the chemistry between Clooney and the actresses who play his daughters. Shailene Woodley ("The Secret Life of the American Teenager’) and newcomer Amara Miller have such easy rapport that they could actually be sisters, a bond that is hard to emulate amongst actresses their ages.
Woodley proves that she is not the typical teen television star. In fact, she overshadows her onscreen father, a task that many, more established actresses have not been able to accomplish. Playing eldest daughter Alex, with the questionable past that was fueled with underage drinking and drugs, Woodley has the meatiest role in the film, finding this seemingly hard character softer edges than others might have been able to find.
For his part, Clooney does well. But as the sideswiped husband, he seems to be sleepwalking through the film at times. He is still as charismatic as ever and helps bring out the humor in the film. However, he’s not really stretching himself in the role. Clooney relies too heavily on his standard bag of tricks, despite playing a character who is watching his world fall apart around him.
The subplot, which gives the film its title, about Matt’s family selling their plot of land, is the film’s Achilles heel. Whenever the film veers off course, it’s usually when dealing with the extended family and the impending real estate deal. Payne and his co-writers could have punctuated the film with the pertinent information, rather than characterizing the family (the Kings) as money-hungry throughout. Not enough time is spent on the extended King family for them to resonate beyond the confines of this subplot.
It’s unusual for a film that deals with the subject matter of death as upfront as "The Descendants" does to end up being uplifting. The filmmakers don’t avoid or sugarcoat anything about Matt’s wife dying. However, at the same time, focusing on how the death helps to heal the broken relationship Matt has with his daughters proves to be the film’s most satisfying aspect.
Alexander Payne has managed to follow up the success of "Sideways" with another triumph that is a study of the family dynamics while in crisis. The director has managed to inject humor into a film that could have easily veered off into melodrama, while also giving a platform to two young actresses that have yet to be exposed to a widespread audience. (Payne has a great eye for talent: he gave Reese Witherspoon her breakout role in "Election" more than a decade ago.) "The Descendants" proves that there is life after death, just as Payne proves there is life after wine.
Matt King :: George Clooney
Alexandra King :: Shailene Woodley
Scottie King :: Amara Miller
Sid :: Nick Krause
Elizabeth King :: Patricia Hastie
Cousin Hugh :: Beau Bridges
Brian Speer :: Matthew Lillard
Julie Speer :: Judy Greer
Scott Thorson :: Robert Forster
Producer, Alexander Payne; Screenwriter, Nat Faxon; Screenwriter, Jim Rash; Producer, Jim Burke; Producer, Jim Taylor; Cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael; Film Editor, Kevin Tent; Production Design, Jane Stewart; Art Director, Timothy Kirkpatrick; Set Decoration, Matt Callahan; Costume Designer, Wendy Chuck; Casting, John Jackson.