|FOX SEARCHLIGHT FILMS, MERIE WALLACE|
George Clooney, left, and Shailene Woodley are shown in a scene from "The Descendants."
"The Descendants," director Alexander Payne's fifth feature, is all about taking things that could be salacious and sensational, and paring them down to a realistic, deeply affecting, human level.
The setting is Hawaii, and though there is beauty here, it comes from a love ingrained in its inhabitants through generations, not the luxurious images used to attract tourists.
Matt King (George Clooney) is a real estate lawyer descended from one of the first land-owning white families in Hawaii. He's now the sole trustee of 25,000 acres of unspoiled land owned by his extended family. A new law will dissolve the trust in seven years, so the family must sell the land, their choice of buyer coming down to a Hawaiian developer or one from the mainland.
But Matt has more on his mind. His thrill-seeking wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), injured in a boating accident, is in a coma from which she will not wake up, and the time has come to pull the plug. A workaholic, Matt never has been the most present husband and father, referring to himself as the "backup parent." Now he must connect with his daughters—17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, who could be the movie's breakout star) and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) —and help them through this trying time.
Alexandra drops the bombshell: Elizabeth was having an affair, with a real estate broker named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), and was planning to ask Matt for a divorce.
Joined by his daughters and Alexandra's stoner boyfriend, Sid (Nick Krause), so begins Matt's journey to inform family and friends, including his gruff, disapproving father-in-law (Robert Forster), of Elizabeth's impending death, and to find the man his wife claimed to love.
In his recent films, Payne has dealt extensively with men who find ways to grow, to better themselves, while overcoming personal tragedies. Jack Nicholson loses his wife and lifelong companion in "About Schmidt" (2002). In "Sideways" (2004), Paul Giamatti must deal with his divorce and failure as a novelist.
Clooney's Matt King has it even worse—losing his wife, learning of her affair, becoming a single father, Alexandra's history of drug and alcohol abuse, Scottie acting out in bizarre ways, pressure from his cousins to make a decision on the land deal.
Clooney is one of the world's biggest movie stars, but he's all actor here. Never does he come across as cool, slick or in control; he's a middle-aged man whose life is unraveling in every way possible. He's lost in the sudden complexity of his life, and the movie refuses to give him an easy out.
Payne, working from a screenplay credited to himself, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, operates in the gray areas of morality, giving us multiple perspectives and reserving judgment. Brian Speer, due in part to surprisingly effective dramatic work by Lillard, is allowed to be sympathetic. Matt's father-in-law, who is not shy about blaming Matt for his daughter's accident and obviously never cared much for him to begin with, gets a heartfelt scene at Elizabeth's bedside, played so tenderly by Forster. There even is more to Sid, who initially seems merely a doofus kept around for comic relief.
There is humor throughout the movie, and Payne again shows a knack for using it to accentuate the drama rather than distract. Keeping with what comes before it, the ending is both happy and sad—what could be more lifelike?
Greg's Grade: A
(Rated R for language including some sexual references. 115 minutes.)