Real estate lawyer Matthew King (George Clooney) has been emotionally distant from his wife for quite a while. His relationship with his two daughters has also suffered from his frequent absences. Now Matthew's wife lies comatose in a hospital bed, the victim of a boating accident. The daughters are running wild and the situation demands that Matthew step up. Soon Matthew will learn something that will make everything even worse.
The Descendants, directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt, Election), is a hell of a good movie. The characters are distinct without feeling contrived, the conversations sound genuine, the pain and the laughter come naturally.
The story takes place in Hawaii, where Matthew's family has lived since 1860. They own 25,000 acres of absolutely gorgeous waterfront land, the largest such undeveloped real estate in Kuau'i. In a few days a decision must be made over whether or not to sell the land and Matthew has the final say. He is quite well-off, but many of his cousins are broke.
“The Descendants” has a beautiful flow to it and an exceptionally smart script. I wasn't looking forward to a series of fights as Matthew tries to get his girls under control, and, apparently, neither were the writers. The situation is dealt with credibly, but not in the way you might expect. I imagine some viewers will disagree with Matthew's response to his kids' foul mouths. 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley) cusses up a storm and she's taught 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) how to do it as well. Their language shocks him, but Matthew is a baby-boomer who has been disengaged for quite a while. After a few attempts at being stern, he simply winces and rolls with the swearing.
Alex's tag-a-long boyfriend is Sid (Nick Krause), who comes off as a stoner goofus on first meeting. He's a boob, insensitive enough to laugh at a woman suffering from Alzheimer's disease. (The scene is the only one in the film that didn't ring true. Sid may be immature, but I couldn't believe he didn't recognize that the woman was suffering from an illness.) Thankfully, as he and the family get acclimated to each other, we see that there's more to him than that.
The acting, by the way, is strong across the board, with George Clooney giving the best performance of his career. The man will likely be picking up a number of trophies during awards season.
Payne uses the Hawaiian setting exceptionally well. The picture postcard images are there, but he also conveys a sense of what it's like to live on the islands. The overall tone is laid back, but all the complexities of life still must be dealt with. The feel of the place is enhanced by a delightful score filled with songs by Hawaiian artists.
One matter to address before wrapping up. Late in the film, Matthew has a pow-wow about the family land with Cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges) and another cousin, Milo, who remains silent through the scene. Cousin Milo is played by none other than Michael Ontkean, Sheriff Harry Truman from Twin Peaks. How can you have Sheriff Truman in your cast and not let him speak? Hopefully we'll see a deleted scene or two in a few months where Milo gets to say something.
Digression over. The Descendants is the kind of movie I've been waiting for all year. It's my favorite of Alexander Payne's films and one of the best movies of the year.