An Oscar-winner for its screenplay penned by director Alexander Payne with writers Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, The Descendants sees George Clooney deliver one of the performances of his career as Matt King, a Honolulu-based landowner who discovers his wife’s infidelity only after she’s left comatose by a boating accident. We follow Matt as he attempts to track down his wife’s lover and grapples with whether or not to sell his family’s valuable real estate, reconnecting with his two troubled daughters (the elder impressively played by Shailene Woodley in a breakout role) along the way. Clooney proves the perfect muse for Payne's ongoing exploration of the dark comedy inherent to the male midlife crisis, bringing just the right amount of levity to a moving family drama.
It's always a bit disconcerting as a critic when your take on a film doesn't coincide with the vast majority. It makes you start wondering whether there's something wrong with you. In the case of The Descendants, for which words like "deeply moving", "emotionally rich" and "masterpiece" have been bandied about (not to mention all the awards buzz), it's left me questioning whether I might be lacking in the heart department. It's either that or (whisper it) the film just isn't as good as the hype would have you believe. It's by no means bad. And the performances are great. But I just can't help but feel that the film has garnered a few more accolades than it should due to its worthy(ish) subject matter.
The plot - without giving away any spoilers - is this: Wealthy Hawaiian landowner Matt King (George Clooney) realises that he's been neglecting his family when his thrill-seeking wife is left comatose by a waterskiing accident and he is left looking after their two daughters. At the same time he's uncomfortably negotiating the sale of one of the last unspoiled corners of Hawaii with his Aloha-shirted, passive-aggressive cousins. All this is set against a picture-postcard backdrop of blue skies, lush green mountains, golden beaches and the roaring Pacific Ocean.
Director Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) specialises in capturing the hilarity and tragedy of the middle-aged male in crisis. While The Descendants has its fair share or funny and poignant moments, it feels more manipulative than Payne's previous work (cue twee ukulele music and a close-up of a little girl being told about the seriousness of her Mommy's hospital condition). It gets a bit preachy too, especially on the subject of, like, being true to your ancestry and protecting Hawaii's landscape and culture and stuff.
But where it excels is in capturing the sheer messiness of family relationships. And this is in no small part down to the immense acting talents of George Clooney and Shailene Woodley, who plays his 17-year-old daughter, Alexandra. Here, the reports really haven't been exaggerated. Clooney gives possibly the finest performance of his career, comical and subtle in equal measure, while Woodley, who has previously been best known for TV work, is guaranteed to become a Hollywood staple from now on. Amara Miller also does a fantastic job as 10-year-old Scottie, and the screen lights up whenever the three of them appear together. Clooney's perplexedness at the girls' expletive-peppered sibling spats provide some of the film's high points.
So while I didn't experience the misty-eyed elation that one might expect after seeing an Oscar-worthy film, I did leave contemplating the artful ways in which George Clooney can manipulate his increasingly distinguished face. And I also Googled 'holidays in Hawaii' as soon as I got home.
In a nutshell: A reasonably well-observed tragi-comedy, but not up to Payne's usual standards. Worth seeing for the outstanding performances from George Clooney and Shailene Woodley - and a great advert for Hawaii.
By Rebecca Davies