“In Hawaii, some of the most powerful people look like bums and stuntmen.” That tart observation springs from the mouth of Matt King (George Clooney), a middling lawyer and put-upon father at the centre of Alexander Payne’s sharply observed comic drama. Matt is also the head of a storied Hawaiian family, descendants of indigenous Pacific royalty and American entrepreneurs who own the state’s last sprawling plot of virgin land. Under pressure from all sides to sell, he finds himself facing a moral and financial decision that could forever mark his family’s legacy.
But Matt has more urgent things on his mind. His wife, an aging party girl with a passion for motor boats, has suffered a terrible accident and lies in a coma. As he tries to navigate the needs of his extended family in the time leading up to the sale, Matt must also attempt to parent his two daughters alone for the first time. The younger is a troublesome tween with an unerring eye for moral judgment. The elder, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), is even more difficult. She returns from boarding school with a ferocious anger that may mask a need to be loved — or may just be anger.
In SIDEWAYS and ABOUT SCHMIDT, Payne gave us memorable portraits of men who had been disappointments to themselves, just at the moment they found a late-life chance for redemption. That may have been part of what attracted him to adapting Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel: Matt King is another isolated man at a turning point. But in his work with George Clooney, Payne pushes further than ever before. With its complex study of an average man, its melancholy mixed with surprising flashes of humour, THE DESCENDANTS feels even more true to life. The Hawaiian shirts are not flattering.
As Matt grapples with events beyond his control, then with the shock that his wife held secrets he never imagined, he emerges a richer, more admirable human being. Backed by a strong supporting cast that includes Robert Forster as Matt’s father-in-law and Woodley in a standout turn as Matt’s teenaged daughter, Clooney gives one of the finest and most mature performances of his career.--TIFF