Director Alex Payne has given us three gems so far, Election, About Schmidt and Sideways. His latest effort in the director’s chair, The Descendants definitely rises to the standard he previously set for himself. Starring George Clooney as “Matt King” and adapted by Payne and two others from a novel, The Descendants is a tale of how life is both complex and simple, all at once.
King is someone that many would aspire to be. A resident of the paradise known as Hawaii, a successful real estate attorney, married to a beautiful woman, and with two daughters. He has a nice house and all the rest that comes with it. Yet when we are first introduced to Matt, he’s a man who bears a heavier burden that Atlas ever carried upon his shoulders.
Matt’s wife Elizabeth is lying in a hospital bed, comatose, being kept alive by a ventilator and feeding tube. She was injured in a boating accident that some believe could have been avoided. His eldest daughter “Alexandra” (Shailene Woodley) is away at an expensive private school, getting into trouble over and over again, while his younger daughter “Scottie” (Amara Miller) is also causing problems herself.
Meanwhile Matt has become sole trustee of an extensive parcel of land on Kauai that has been in his family for generations. Descended from a princess who was herself a descendant of King Kamehameha and a ’haole’ banker, Matt’s father left him in total control of the family’s holdings. The trust is due to expire in seven years, meaning there is a ticking clock on the sale of the property and a large group of cousins who want a say in just who, if anyone, is allowed to buy the land. The group of cousins who want the property sold to a particular bidder is led by cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges). Considering the top bid for the land is around one-half billion dollars, there are strong feelings about the sale. However, there are some cousins, and a lot of residents of the state, who do not want the land sold at all.
If this wasn’t enough stress for Matt, he’d told by the doctors treating his wife that she is not going to ever recover. Due to the fact she has signed an advanced healthcare directive, Matt has no say in whether or not the machines keeping Elizabeth alive will be turned off. However the doctor gives him a little time, so that her friends and loved ones will be given an opportunity to say goodbye.
While all of this is going on, he discovers something else about his wife and this revelation shakes his world to the very roots. Worse yet, the source of the revelation is probably the last person on Earth he would have expected to hear it from. Having no choice but to deal with his wife’s impending departure from life, he brings Alexandra home and with his daughters, and Alexandra’s friend Sid along for moral support, Matt goes about informing everyone of the bad news about Elizabeth.
Payne is the type of director who clearly motivates actors to bring their “A” game to the set. Clooney, who wanted to play a role in Sideways only to be told no by Payne (Payne wanted a less well-known face) delivers one of his best performances ever. We see the full range of feelings that a man who must go through all of this experiences. Woodley, who looks much like the high school student she was just a few years back is perfectly cast as the troubled daughter, who loves her father dearly, even if she doesn’t show or express it well. There are a number of places where audiences will laugh audibly, and others where the silence will swallow the theater.