A love-letter to Hawaii, the type of movie you would want made about your own family, George Clooney finally shedding his very “George” persona to inhabit a role to full dramatic effect and another expertly crafted slice of Alexander Payne’s mid-life angst Americana.
Matt King’s (Clooney) wife is not in fact the woman he knew at all. After a boating accident leaves her comatose, he is forced to re-connect with his daughters – of whom he is considered “back-up” parent. Concurrent to this rather bracing development Matt is also dealing with the responsibility of being the sole trustee of a family trust, a large one at that. Through the gift of historical inheritance he and his cousins have come to own a very large, undeveloped swathe of Kauai – one of the Hawaiian Islands. Their machinations about who they should sell to provide extra grist to the dramatic mill of Matt’s gradual learning’s about his wife’s other life.
The Descendants is a picture of brilliantly realised nuance. Clooney’s lovely considered voiceover quickly establishes the story but is gradually phased out as the movie progresses. Voiceover overkill is neatly avoided. Kaui Hart Hemmings 2007 book is adapted skillfully for screen. The rich, subtle detail, sense of place and succinct contextualisation of Payne’s screenplay (co-written by Nat Faxon and Jim Nash) is a delight. It’s tart, funny, surprising and, ultimately, very moving. The perceived perfection of an Hawaiian paradise is undercut by the more mundane reality of actually living there. While the performances are universally on point, revealing and eminently identifiable.
Weakness is a common theme throughout. The all too fallible nature of human behaviours – our frailties, our secrets, our foibles and complications – unwinds through those sterling performances. Robert Forster as Matt’s bitter father in-law. Beau Bridges as one of Matt’s cousins – that palpable Bridges laid back ease perfectly at home in the Hawaiian setting, Shailene Woodley as his eldest, “all-feeling” seventeen-year-old daughter Alexandra. Nick Krause as Kit, the surfer / slacker-dude boyfriend of Alexandra – initially predictably annoying, he then becomes as much an integral part of their troupe as anyone. The interplay between Clooney, his daughters and Sid provides much of the film’s comedic wind; and the middle ground they all find with each other as the dust settles in the aftermath of his wife’s accident much of the satisfaction.
The premise isn’t the most original, and some will see this as middlebrow Clooney led Oscar bait, but that agenda is too loaded. If you take this bittersweet, heartfelt and all too human drama on its merits, made with the care and attention a filmmaker like Alexander Payne brings to a project and, if you like to think cinema can still intelligently engage with ordinary identifiable family emotions, then this is simply too good to miss.