“What is it about the women in my life that makes them want to destroy themselves?” ponders Matt King, the protagonist and narrator of The Descendants. The fact that the character is played by George Clooney should not go unnoticed. Here is an actor who continually goes against type — this time, he’s a cuckold — and yet never seems miscast. He’s a giant star with the talent to warrant his popularity. And in the hands of writer-director Alexander Payne, Clooney has rarely seemed so much at home.
With each subsequent movie (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways), Payne pushes further away from the broad satire that started his career and edges closer to full-blown drama. The Descendants is the least overtly comical movie he’s made, although the film still retains his sense of absurdist humor. The laughs in this one happen to emerge from extremely painful situations. At the start of the movie, we find out Matt’s wife has been injured in a boating accident and lies in a coma, unlikely to ever wake up. This forces Matt, who confesses to having been “the back-up parent, the understudy” of the family, to bond with his two daughters: The fiery, rebellious Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and the younger but equally complex Scottie (Amara Miller).
At the same time, Matt, a real estate lawyer in Hawaii, is overseeing the impending sale of a large tract of waterfront land that his family has owned since 1860. The transaction will make Matt and his relatives financially comfortable, but the crisis involving his wife has forced him to consider the ways in which parents shape the world view of their children and the legacies we bequeath them. When Matt discovers his wife was cheating on him, he is stranded in a perfect storm of emotional turmoil — a mid-life crisis writ enormous.
Adapted from the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants has the feel and tone of a novel, right down to the voiceover narration that conveys so much of the backstory. But Payne makes the material his own, using touches of exaggerated realism to make this sad story resonate with humor and nuance. Every character contributes to the whole, be it Robert Forster as Matt’s irascible father-in-law or Nick Krause as Alexandra’s stoner pal, a zonked-out one-man Greek chorus who also gets his moment of profound empathy. (Payne’s critics often label him as a misanthrope, which is a baffling, catastrophic misreading of his films.)
Holding the entire thing together is Clooney, who disappears into the role of a man left flummoxed after his world turns upside-down. Matt is being pressured on all sides, even as he’s realizing so many of the things he had taken for granted in life were false. His daughters, his relatives and his in-laws are all mad at him, and he, too, is harboring a rage toward the man who was carrying on with his wife (excellently played by Matthew Lillard.)
All of Payne’s films have been driven by the anger and frustration of his protagonists, but The Descendants is the first one in which sadness lurks behind every frame. The film’s quiet closing scene — a simple snapshot of ordinary behavior — initially struck me as flat. But the more you think about it, the more eloquent the finale becomes. Life goes on no matter what; it’s how we respond to the sudden curves and drops that really counts.
Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Robert Forster.
Director: Alexander Payne.
Screenwriters: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rush. Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings.
Producers: Jim Burke, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor.
A Fox Searchlight release. Running time: 115 minutes. Vulgar language, adult themes. Opens Wed. Nov. 23 in Miami-Dade: Aventura, South Beach, Sunset Place, Paragon Grove; in Broward: Oakwood, Gateway, Paradise; in Palm Beach: Palace, Shadowood, Delray.