During one of the first scenes in director Alexander Payne’s sharply written and aesthetically striking “The Descendants,” George Clooney’s Matt King reveals in a voice-over that his friends on the mainland have quite a few misconceptions about his home state of Hawaii and its inhabitants.
They are under the impression that just because he resides on the tropical set of islands, he lives in paradise — like a permanent vacation — and that all everyone does is drink mai tais, shake their hips and catch waves.
But Matt, who hasn’t picked up a surf board in 15 years, is certainly not immune to the problems that beleaguer everyday life — you could actually say he has the weakest immune system on the face of the planet.
His wife, Elizabeth, played by Patricia Hastie, is lying in a hospital bed in a deep coma following an accident in which she was launched from a speedboat. Although Matt remains optimistic, doctors inform him that her condition continues to get worse, and because of a stipulation in her will, the life support plugs will soon be yanked from the wall.
Facing the inevitable demise of his better half, Matt, a workaholic lawyer and self-professed “back-up parent,” finds himself the sole guardian of their two daughters, the 10-year-old oddball Scottie (Amara Miller, making her big screen debut) and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley of TV’s “The Secret Life of the American Teen-ager”), a rebellious boarding school student with a checkered past.
As he attempts to reconnect with his offspring, Matt is also dealing with the pressure of being the sole trustee of a pristine, virgin piece of land that was handed down from his ancestors to his entire family. That trust is soon set to expire, and it’s up to Matt to decide what to do with the parcel — follow the majority’s opinion and sell it to developers, which would make everyone rich, or just do nothing and infuriate his enormous group of relatives, most of whom are struggling financially.
Then, to top it all off, Matt learns from Alex in one of the film’s more powerful sequences that Elizabeth was involved in an extramarital affair at the time of the crash and that she was on the verge of asking for a divorce.
As the morally conflicted and mentally distraught Matt, Clooney gives what could be regarded as the most well-rounded and emotionally raw performance of his distinguished career. Clooney shows astounding range as he shuffles through the many stages of his character’s arc — misery, animosity and eventually acceptance — and it’s simply amazing how the Oscar-winning actor can simulate all those different feelings with just a subtle body movement or a facial expression.
Not to be outdone is Clooney’s co-star Woodley, who provides one of the most realistic portrayals of a teenager I have ever seen. The intensity she brings to the part is just mesmerizing. And to think, this is her first major film role.
The rest of the supporting cast is also rather impressive, including Robert Foster as Matt’s grudge-holding father-in-law, Matthew Lillard as Elizabeth’s lover on the side, Nick Krause as Alex’s dimwitted platonic friend and Judy Greer as the wife of Lillard’s Brian Speer.
The film also has a strong sense of naturalism because Payne (“Sideways” and “Election”), who adapted the film from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemming and wrote the screenplay with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, slows the pacing down to properly develop each well-written character. That way it makes you feel a personal connection to them when they face their demons or show their vulnerable sides. And just when you think you have Payne all figured out, he throws a curveball and gets your mind going in a million different directions.
While most films would collapse under the weight of such heavy subject matters, Payne evens out the pathos of the King’s situation with just the right touch of humor, especially when Matt and his children travel around the state to find and confront the adulterous Speer.
Even so, the “The Descendants” is at its thought-provoking best when it explores how people react and grow in the face of adversity. It’s not too often that a movie will resonate with you long after you leave the theater, but “The Descendants” is one of those movies.
5 stars (out of 5)
Comments can be directed to Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org