By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 26, 2011)
In the course of (what passes for) my “career” as a movie critic, I have avowed to avoid the trite phrase “heartwarming family film”. Well, so much for principles. The Descendants is a heartwarming family film. There, I said it. Now, let me qualify that. Since it is directed by Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways) it is a heartwarming family film riddled with dysfunction and middle-aged angst (which is how I prefer my heartwarming family films, thank you very much). Think of it as Terms of Endearment goes Hawaiian.
Despite the lush and verdant setting, Payne wastes no time hinting that there is trouble in Paradise. People who live in Hawaii get cancer, feel pain and encounter their own fair share of potholes as they caterwaul down the road of life, like anyone else. That is the gist of an internal monologue, delivered by Matt King (George Clooney), as he holds vigil in an ICU, where his wife (Patricia Hastie) lies in a coma, gravely injured from a water-skiing mishap. As he contemplates the maze of IV tubes and such keeping his wife alive, Matt, like anyone staring into the Abyss, begins taking inventory of his life up to now.
After all, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs? On the “up” side, Matt is financially set for life, as an heir to and executor for a sizable chunk of prime, undeveloped land on Kauai, held in a family trust (thanks to genuine Hawaiian royalty buried in the woodpile a ways back). On the “down” side, his workaholic nature has precipitated emotional distance from his wife and two daughters. His 17-year old, the sullen and combative Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) is at boarding school; and precocious 10-year old Scottie (Amara Miller) is in hot water for antics like cyber-bullying a classmate, and bringing disturbing photos of her comatose mother to school.
In the past, Matt’s wife has served as the buffer between him and the day-to-day daughterly drama, but now that she is incapacitated, it’s all landed in his lap. He may be a respected pillar of the community, but now finds himself akin to the proverbial deer in the headlights. After awkwardly putting out Scottie’s fires, Matt decides that he will need to enlist the assistance of her older sister for riot control.
Besides, he figures it would be best to keep both of his girls close by, should the worst happen. As if this weren’t enough on his plate, Matt is also up against a pending deadline to sell the family’s land to a real estate developer. He is being egged on by a sizable coterie of cousins who (a couple anti-development dissenters aside) are eager to milk this potential cash cow for all its worth.
Then, the bombshell lands. The bombardiers are his daughters, who let it slip that, completely unbeknownst to Dad, Mom had been getting a little action on the side with a younger man (Matthew Lillard). And he’s a real estate agent, no less (shades of American Beauty). Poor Matt. He’s no sooner steeled himself for the looming possibility of becoming a grieving widower who must stay strong for his kids, but instead finds himself cast as a blindsided cuckold.
Flummoxed, Matt demands confirmation from his wife’s friends, who fess up. Although he has no real idea what he wants to say (or do) to him, Matt nonetheless decides that he must track down his wife’s lover (it’s a guy thing). With Scottie, Alexandra and her boyfriend (Nick Krause) in tow, he embarks on the patented Alexander Payne Road Trip, which in this case involves hopping a quick flight to Kauai.
While the setup may feel somewhat familiar (like the aforementioned American Beauty meets Little Miss Sunshine), or even rote, in Payne’s hands it is anything but. Yes, on one level it’s another soaper about a middle-aged male heading for a meltdown, but every time you think you’ve got it sussed, Payne keeps pitching curve balls.
His script (which he co-adapted with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings) consistently hits the sweet spot between comedy and drama, giving us characters who, in spite of (or perhaps, due to) their contradictions and flaws, are people to whom we can all easily relate to. The film also showcases Clooney’s best work in years; it’s the closest he has come thus far to proving that he may indeed be this generation’s Cary Grant, after all.
This is one of the first knockouts on the autumn release calendar, and one of the best films I’ve seen this year. There are many reasons to recommend it, not the least of which is a bevy of fine performances from the entire cast. Lillard shows surprising depth, and it’s a hoot to watch veteran character actors like Robert Forster and Beau Bridges doing that voodoo that they do so well. I also like the way Payne subtly utilizes the Hawaiian landscapes like another character in the story, much in the same manner he employed the California wine country milieu in Sideways. After all, it is only when human beings are set against the simple perfection of an orchid (or a grape) that we are truly exposed as the silly, needlessly self-absorbed and ultimately inconsequential creatures that we really are.