Matt King (George Clooney) is by his own admission, “the back-up parent.” As the heir to a massive tract of Hawaiian land, he spends most of his time working on a huge deal that will make him and his cousins all filthy rich while simultaneously juggling the needs of his law firm. His life is put into perspective, however, when his wife is involved in a boating accident that results in a deep coma which doctors fear she will not come out of. When dealing with the antics of his youngest daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), proves more than he is capable of handling, Matt brings his oldest daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), home from boarding school. Alexandra, though, has her own set of issues and soon informs Matt that his wife was cheating on him, leading to the conflict between mother and daughter. Frantic and torn between his ever-increasing responsibilities, Matt takes his daughters, along with Alexandra’s friend Sid (Nick Krause), on a short vacation that conveniently serves as an opportunity to track down and confront his wife’s lover.
Written and directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways), The Descendants serves as a master class in storytelling. The opening scene pulls you in and engrosses you in a supremely compelling narrative that refuses to let go until the closing credits roll. Matt’s relationships are often complicated and far from perfect but Payne paints a picture in which you are able to see the heart of the man beyond his flaws, which is for me a key to this film’s success. Nothing about The Descendants is especially easy or comfortable (as you can probably tell from the summary) but the story is crafted so well that you can’t help but play along through the many awkward situations Matt finds himself in. Moreover, Payne manages to find real and genuine humor within what should be tragic circumstances and his actors bring that to life tremendously. At the same time, the humor never becomes disrespectful or foolish but rather sensitive and mature. The drama-comedy blend is near seamless, making the truly funny moments laugh-out-loud worthy and the more serious scenes all the more impactful.
All of this brilliant behind-the-camera work would be for naught, however, without an outstanding cast which thankfully The Descendants has. As he always does, Clooney nails his part, bringing a sense of fragility to Matt while still exhibiting that calm and easy manner that makes him so appealing. Multiple times he takes Matt to the brink of breaking down then pulls himself back together in time to save face in front of his daughters. I’m not sure it is his absolute best portrayal (I think his work in Up in the Air is slightly better), but it is a powerhouse performance that will undoubtedly earn some major award nominations. This isn’t all about Clooney, however, which is what I expected. Each actor that comes on screen brings something to the table, leaving their own marks on the film as a whole. Krause and Miller are both better than I could have hoped given their respective lack of experience and Judy Greer gives a turn that I didn’t know she was capable of. Then there’s Woodley who goes toe-to-toe with Clooney on a number of occasions and more than holds her own. This is a girl who starred on The Secret Life of the American Teenager, one of the worst TV shows in recent memory and yet in this setting, she is outstanding. Alexandra is foul-mouthed and harsh but Woodley brings a sense of humanity to the part and makes you feel as if this is exactly how this character should be. The dynamic between Alexandra and Matt is exquisite, at times the driving force behind the film. There is a remarkable chemistry that exists between each member of the cast and I think that’s partly due to Clooney’s easy manner and partly due to Payne’s efforts to have his actors grow together long before the cameras rolled.
To top it all off, the gorgeousness of the Hawaiian backdrop along with a native-themed soundtrack helps set the tone for The Descendants and adds a “trouble in paradise” theme that only deepens the drama-comedy blend. In a sense, Hawaii itself is a supporting actor and just like the rest of the cast, it carries its weight with flair. While it isn’t perfect (there’s a certain lack of connection with the audience despite the film’s excellence), I walked out of The Descendants under the impression that I had just seen the eventual Best Picture winner and its award aspirations should not end there.