This weekend, HK and I went to see The Descendants. Based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’ 2007 novel, George Clooney plays Matt King, a workaholic whose neglected wife, Elizabeth, is in a coma following a boating accident. He is suddenly faced with the responsibility of taking care of his 2 daughters; a 10 year-old smartass named Scottie, and 17 year-old Alexandra, who has been sent away to boarding school. Thrown into the role of Father, Matt readily admits he was the “backup parent,” although it becomes increasingly apparent that his wife was no Mother of the Year herself.
Further complicating his life, Matt, who is descended from Hawaiian royalty, is the primary beneficiary of 25,000 acres of pristine, undeveloped land on Kaua’i, and must make the decision to sell it to developers or keep it an unspoiled paradise. Beau Bridges plays the greedy cousin pushing him to “make them all rich”, and all of Hawaii is awaiting his final decision. No small burden to bear, especially given that he seems to be getting shit from everyone.
Only after Matt decides to become the husband and father that he should have been does he get blindsided. First, he learns that his wife will not recover, and her living will stipulates that she not be left to linger. So the family and friends must prepare to say goodbye to her. Adding insult to injury, Alexandra informs her father that Elizabeth was having an affair. She has been furious with her Mother, and Matt tries to soften her resentment while experiencing his own emotions. Throughout, Clooney balances the fine line between overwhelming anger/grief beautifully.
Making the dutiful journey to tell Elizabeth’s parents the news, Alexandra demands that Sid, her stoner boyfriend come along. Sid is the kid that speaks before thinking, provoking others with an innocence perfectly played. Elizabeth’s father, played by Robert Forster, idealizes his daughter while blaming Matt. His struggle to withhold the truth has us grinding our teeth in frustration, but fortunately, the director throws us some comic relief in time to take the edge off.
When Matt travels to Kaua’i to confront Elizabeth’s lover, he learns that the adulterer is married himself, adding even more layers of complicated emotion. Utilizing Alexandra’s savvy, we watch the two form a bond that was previously non-existent. In fact, the bonds formed in The Descendants is what keeps this movie from being as depressing as it could potentially be.
Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election) directs this family dramedy with perfection. It is a delicate balance between human tragedy and sometimes hilarious (but not forced) humor. The characters are real and fallible, and IMHO, this is one of Clooney’s finest roles, not to mention one of my favorite films of 2011.