The Descendants

Movie Information

The Story: A Hawaiian real-estate lawyer faces his wife's impending death, two daughters he doesn't understand and a large circle of dissolute relatives bent on selling the family land. The Lowdown: A relatably human comedy-drama that is both surprisingly funny and moving, cemented by a terrific performance from George Clooney.
Genre: Comedy Drama
Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Patricia Hastie
Rated: R

Alexander Payne’s The Descendants is destined to be one of the season’s bigger hits. It has a bankable star, a name director, mostly terrific reviews, and is, in fact, a very good movie—without ever quite being a great one. Being that it’s from Payne, moviegoers who think in terms of filmmakers (the basic target audience of the film) have some idea of the kind of film it is: unhurried, a little off-center, humanistic, focused on deeply-flawed characters whose appeal may not be immediately apparent. But The Descendants is a little different in that it’s not as bleak as About Schmidt (2002), nor as specialized as Sideways (2004). It actually has far more in common with his sweet-tempered short film “14e arrondissement” in Paris, Je T’Aime (2006). And, to me, that’s not a bad thing. At the same time, it’s typical Payne—as was the short film—in that life is finally all about where you are, what you’re doing, and with whom you do it.

George Clooney (an almost certain Oscar nomination and a good bet to win) plays Matt King, a Hawaiian real-estate lawyer descended from a long line of Hawaiians with a lineage that includes Hawaiian royalty. It’s through this lineage that he has ended up as trustee of an extremely valuable tract of picture-postcard unspoiled beachfront land on Kauai. Since Matt has always lived off his earnings and not relied on his trust fund, he has no real need or desire to sell the land. The trust is set to expire in a few years, however, and Matt’s rather motley assortment of layabout relatives have plans to sell the land to a developer.

Though it looms over the film and is ultimately central to the story, the land is almost a side issue in terms of the plot. The story is more concerned with the fact that his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), has been in a boating accident that has left her in a coma, which Matt soon learns is not going to change. It’s not a question of whether she’s going to die, but when to honor her living will and let her go. The situation has already been difficult, since it left Matt in charge of 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), a daughter he utterly cannot understand. It also leaves him in charge of her away-at-school 17-year-old sister, Alex (Shailene Woodley), whom he brings home—partly to say goodbye to her mother and partly to help with Scottie.

The problem with this is that Alex—apparently recovering from a drug problem—is not happy about either prospect. This turns out to be due, in part, to the fact that she’s the one family member who knew that Elizabeth had been cheating on Matt. It’s through her that Matt learns of his dying wife’s infidelity—and that sets the film off in another direction with Matt determined to learn the identity of his wife’s lover and confront him. To this end, he starts playing detective with the assistance of Alex—with her seemingly clueless and obnoxious boyfriend, Sid (Nick Krause), in tow. (Sid, however, may not be quite as witless as he seems.) It sounds like a farce comedy, and in some ways it is, but it’s also more than that. One of the movie’s joys is the way the plot keeps complicating itself—in part through characters who defy expectations.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the film is that it takes that hoariest and most tiresome of modern movie cliches—the distracted workaholic dad and husband—and makes it seem fresh. In the hands of Payne, his co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, Clooney and the rest of the cast’s flawless performances, The Descendants becomes a human, believable and quietly moving film. Rated R for language including some sexual references.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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9 thoughts on “The Descendants

    • Xanadon't

      Haven’t seen it but would be interested. Have you? Where does it rank?

      I’d place The Descendants a notch below About Schmidt and (maybe) a notch above Sideways.

  1. Ken Hanke

    I’d place The Descendants a notch below About Schmidt and (maybe) a notch above Sideways.

    I’d put The Descendants on a par with About Schmidt and considerably above Sideways, which I don’t like at all.

  2. Edwin Arnaudin

    Though it looms over the film and is ultimately central to the story, the land is almost a side issue in terms of the plot.

    I agree. It’s a bit odd that the issue is, to some extent, the source of the title. Though I like the decision Matt makes in regards to the land, I didn’t get a great sense of his connection to the property or his heritage. The film seemed to be one or two scenes away from really solidifying such a relationship. The bullied girl’s mom makes a plea for preservation and at least one other person agrees, but considering the last-second personal issues that influence Matt’s decision, I understand but don’t fully buy his ancestral leanings.

    Also underdeveloped was Matt’s marriage. Other than the inherent faithfulness of a husband and father, of honorably seeing the situation through, I never got why he cared so much about his wife. A little bit was relayed when Matt talks about how he and Elizabeth met, but there’s not much to indicate that they were in love. For the emotional payoffs concerning her demise to succeed, I needed more evidence to believe Matt’s investment and become more invested myself.

    Otherwise, I like The Descendants a great deal.

    • Edwin Arnaudin

      …a very good movie — without ever quite being a great one.

      The two underdeveloped issues are my explanation for why the film doesn’t reach Great status.

  3. Me

    Not sure if it was the same at Fine Arts but i think the Carolina was showing it in the wrong format. I think the film was intended for a widescreen release.

  4. Wichita

    I finally saw this movie, in spite of the commercials that seemed to make it appear to be a “dark comedy”. I have rarely seen a movie that I enjoyed this much portrayed so poorly in the advertisements for it.

  5. Ken Hanke

    It strikes me as not all that dark and that the drama outdistances the comedy, though it is occasionally pretty funny.

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