Hawaii isn’t always paradise, Matt King (George Clooney) tells us in the heavily-narrated opening act of “The Descendants,” based on the debut novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings.
For years, Matt’s been the “back-up parent,” quietly plugging away at his job and, lately, managing the sale of his family’s trust – a large parcel of paradise passed down through the generations. Meanwhile, his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) manages their spastic preteen Scottie (Amara Miller) and her ex-druggie older sister Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), while racing boats on the side.
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Then a speedboat accident lands Elizabeth in the hospital, in a coma from which she won’t recover. Her will states that Matt must pull the plug, and so he and his daughters begin to tell family and friends to say goodbye now before Elizabeth is gone forever.
But Matt’s image of his wife and daughters is transformed as he reconnects with his reckless children and learns that his wife was having an affair and was ready to leave him. In a move that is part vengeful husband and part sympathetic guardian, Matt and the girls start searching for Elizabeth’s lover, to give him an opportunity to say goodbye.
Writer/director Alexander Payne co-wrote the film with actors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Payne, whose previous work includes “Sideways” and “About Schmidt,” has crafted another strong character in Matt King. Much like the leads in “Sideways,” Matt is a type – like the wine lover and B-actor for which Payne won a best screenplay Oscar. He’s a middle-aged father, reconnecting with his daughters and realizing that the reality he knew was far from the reality that actually was. While the film is marred with excessive set-up narration and a few traipsing scenes in the middle exploring the family land deal and the hunt for Elizabeth’s lover, Clooney’s Matt keeps things moving. The tired, aging, slightly oblivious father and husband he delivers is complex and relatable.
Matt’s journey is set against Hawaii’s beautiful beaches and countryside, with an islander soundtrack of harps and guitars, juxtaposing the story’s weight with a carefree setting. It makes the film more contemplative and less emotional. It also helps the humor scattered throughout to land easily.
Matt’s daughters help him along the way. Miller’s rowdy Scottie is kind of confusing, and way too crass, which has something to do with her rebellious older sister Alexandra and probably more to do with the minds behind the movie. Woodley as Alexandra is fantastic, though – she’s a nice balance of wild child and caring daughter. Her sidekick, pot-smoking guitarist Sid (Nick Krause), keeps things light with his dim-witted humor as the group island-hop their way to finding Elizabeth’s man.
There’s not much to hide about the ending. Throughout the film, the inevitability of Elizabeth’s death hangs over everything. But Hemmings’ story and Payne’s adaptation still manage to surprise with the power of Matt’s subtle transformation from workaholic to father.
Even in Hawaii, family is what makes life beautiful.