PLOT: Matt King (George Clooney) is the descendant of Hawaiian royalty, and, along with his many cousins, owns a big chunk of highly valued land. On the eve of a big land deal, in which Matt is the trustee, his wife has a boating accident, that puts her in a coma. Essentially brain-dead, her living will means that she’s going to be taken off life-support, and before she dies, King wants his two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) to make peace with their mother. However, it turns out that Matt has a peace of his own to make, when he discovers his wife has been carrying on a long-term affair.
REVIEW: THE DESCENDANTS is Alexander Payne’s long-awaited follow-up to SIDEWAYS. Like that film, THE DESCENDANTS is a pitch-perfect mix of humor and drama. While the plot line makes this sound like a tragedy, it’s actually one of the more life-affirming movies I’ve seen in a while. We all have baggage, regardless of our backgrounds, and the opening narration by Clooney, which is superimposed over the day-to-day, seamier side of Hawaii (far away from the beaches and Mai Tais) reaffirms the fact that just because you live in “paradise” doesn’t mean your life is perfect.
Clooney’s Matt King is an interesting character. Fabulously wealthy, he’s a disciplined man who refuses to live off any of the money that he inherited, embracing a relatively thrifty lifestyle, where he supports his family solely on the income he makes as a fairly successful land-lawyer. While not stated explicitly, we get the feeling that King’s wife might have married him for his money, with her grief-stricken father (played by Robert Forster) admonishing him for not given his wife the material things she wanted, like a boat, or a home abroad.
The heart of the film is Clooney’s relationship with his daughters, with his workaholic ways meaning that he’s essentially a stranger to them. His older daughter, a wild child who’s a lot like her mother (a strong turn by newcomer Shailene Woodley) was estranged from the family, mostly due to the fact that she knew her mother was cheating, and threatened to expose her. The scene where she tells him about the affair is likely going to be the film’s signature scene, as instead of throwing an angry fit, he throws on his sandals, and clumsily runs through the streets.
A good chunk of the film follows Clooney and his daughters on a trip to the island paradise Clooney and his family owns, ostensibly to survey the land, but really to track down and confront his wife’s lover (played by a maturing Matthew Liliard), who’s got a family of his own (with his wife played by Judy Greer). This section of the film gives the audience the beautiful scenery they’d expect from a film set in Hawaii, and it raises some interesting questions about how all the beauty we have left in the world is being snatched by greedy land-barons to turn into mini-malls and golf-courses.
Like many of the other films I’ve seen at TIFF, THE DESCENDANTS seems to be a major Oscar contender, and I’d wager that it’ll definitely get a best picture, and director nomination, as well as one for Clooney, and one for Woodley as best supporting actress. It’s truly a fine film, and it fits in well with Payne’s other serio-comic films like ABOUT SCHMIDT and SIDEWAYS (although it lacks the acidity of the great ELECTION). It’s a moving, life-affirming piece of work- and more than anything, it proves that Clooney’s track-record as an actor is unmatched by any of his peers. I’d put it in the same class as something like UP IN THE AIR, which, in my book, makes it a winner.