The Descendants ascends to dramatic heights
To Alexander Paynes indelible portraits of men in crisis Paul Giamattis divorced, unpublished author in Sideways, Jack Nicholsons widowed, untethered retiree in About Schmidt and Matthew Brodericks divorced, vengeful civics teacher in Election add George Clooneys about-to-be widowed real estate lawyer in the moving, darkly comic drama The Descendants.
That Matt Kings wife is in a coma is only one of his problems; hes never been much of a father to his two daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). The members of his large, wealthy family, descendants of a Hawaiian princess and a white banker, are selling off their last 25,000 acres of pristine Hawaiian land, weighing the bids while being cautioned about the environmental impact of yet another golf resort. And his grief is complicated by the revelation that his wife had an affair and was planning to leave him.
Matt may be king of this particular slice of paradise, but life goes on in Honolulu as it does everywhere; unlike his siblings, Matt insists on raising his family only on what hes earned, and he hasnt been on a surfboard in 15 years.
Now this self-described back-up parent must learn how to handle Scotties pre-pubertal curiosity and Alexandras obnoxious boyfriend (Nick Krause), not to mention his father-in-law (Robert Forster), who blames Matts stinginess for his daughters accident.
He must follow the dictates of his wifes living will, alerting all that its time to say goodbye. And he will take his children on a mini-vacation to Kauai, to see the land that will no longer be theirs and track down his wifes lover.
Unlike the protagonists of Paynes earlier films, Matt is a man who, blessed with money and looks, has never had to try very hard. Its a role close to the publics perception of Clooney, who has aged into this performance with deep valleys under his eyes and deeper folds in his neck. His wry delivery and chilly remove suit the part well, as do those Hawaiian shirts tucked into his chinos.
Even Paynes more unusual casting choices work, including Matthew Lillard playing it straight as the callow lover, and surfer Laird Hamilton as the man who may have been responsible for the accident.
The directors sense of place is as unerring as ever, as is his barbed, rueful dialogue, here working for the first time with screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (adapting the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings). The parts tie together neatly, and the conflict resolves a bit too easily.
But The Descendants finds Payne, now 50, having arrived in midlife with a new maturity, eschewing solipsism and snickers for a deeper engagement with the world in which his men flail, buffeted by misfortune and seizing the day only when theyve run out of other options.
(At the Barrywoods, Glenwood Arts, Palace, Studio 30.)