Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Patricia Hastie, Matthew Lillard
for language including some sexual references.
Reviewer: Carol Hemphill & Kent Tentschert
Hawaiian real estate broker Matt King (George Clooney) is struggling. In the midst of a huge land deal that could make his family very rich, his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) suffers a boating accident that leaves her on life support. Soon after, he discovers that she was having an affair.
Now left to grapple with his 17-year-old daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and younger daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), Matt takes his daughters to Kauai on the ruse of a little R&R, but in reality, he plans to confront Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) his wife’s lover.
The synopsis of “The Descendants” leaves out the meat and potatoes of this emotional story. Set in paradise – the King family is experiencing everything but Nirvana.
Matt and his relatives are direct descendants of the rulers of the Hawaiian Islands, thus the family owns a huge tract of untouched, virgin land on Kauai worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but not every family member wants to sell.
As Matt reaches the final stage of this real estate deal, tragedy strikes in the form of his wife’s boating accident.
As he gathers his two daughters to regroup and break the news that she will never recover, he learns that his wife was having an affair.
Touching upon themes of family, responsibility and closure, this quiet dance with grief uses isolation in a subtle and effective way. The gorgeous Hawaiian landscapes simply lay bare the facts that loss and betrayal are found everywhere.
Each character gains closure with the dying Elizabeth in a solitary way. Whether through yelling, acting out, talking or forgiving, each finds their path to move on. Matt’s path is the longest and quite convoluted, but it is the most rewarding when we taste his palette of emotions as his life spins in a dizzying array of directions. Clooney shows a vulnerability that is unusual for most of the characters he portrays. This weakness brings a humanness to Matt as we follow his sorrowful trail to awareness.
This is a very personal story. As people fly around Matt, flitting in and out of his life, he acts on raw feelings of anger, deception and sadness. Yet, this fuels his healing, for the more he is driven to the ends of these tender nerves, the more he is opened up to his loss, understanding and forgiveness.
“The Descendants” is a thought-provoking film that clings to viewers like a barnacle to a ship’s hull. With outstanding performances, great cinematography and a tight personal story, this film will move you in delicate, memorable ways.
At the beginning of “The Descendants,” Matt explains, in voice over, that Hawaii is not the paradise everyone thinks it is. His remark is telling, coming from someone who actually owns a large chunk of it and will be relieved if it is sold.
So right away we see what Matt does not. First, that his views about paradise reflect his own unsatisfying life and second, that he mistakenly thinks paradise has something to do with surfing.
Matt is just one of a number of imperfect people who populate this tale. His wife, Liz, is another. And, because things are what they are, the halting husband emerges from his personal coma. His wasted wife does not.
“The Descendants” is so well-paced that it’s possible to overlook some irritating stuff. For example, why, on the very day he pulls the plug on his “love,” does Matt fly off to another island to peek through the bushes at her lover?
It is challenging to evaluate a movie that has already been called perfect by a few and hailed as the best movie of the year by many. After all, “The Descendants” is blessed with splendid performances across the board. It is beautifully shot. The music is quite special.
Still, each time Alexander Payne directs his camera away from others and focuses on Liz, prone in a hospital bed, the tone of the film lurches to a place not supported by what came before and not related to what follows.
Every time we see her parted, parched lips drawn up against her teeth, her cruelly twisted neck, and her hands cocked and clenched around towels, Matt’s shenanigans become more irksome.
The actions resulting from his personal pain and possible redemption – admittedly necessary to his character – are out of sync with Liz’s face and fate, revealing an indelicate balance that makes this picture just a little too slick