Matt King (George Clooney) is a lawyer born and raised on the Hawaiian archipelago who is the sole trustee of a vast tract of land (cue Monty Python references) and has decided that the time has come to sell. He’s been sitting on a potential fortune for most of his life, preferring to achieve through hard work rather than inheritance, and now he and his relatives are debating the pros and cons of the potential buyers. Matt’s wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is currently in hospital after a boating accident, and its whilst she’s in a coma that Matt inadvertently discovers she has been keeping secrets from him.
Like About Schmidt and Sideways, The Descendants is a comedy/drama that aims for ‘bittersweet’ as the narrative unfolds. The film never becomes depressing, despite the often downbeat subject matter. It seems that Payne (and presumably Kaui Hart Hemmings, the author of the novel on which the film is based) felt that this should be fairly anti-Hollywood in its depiction of Hawaii. Thus, Matt’s narration tells us from the very beginning that whilst the rest of the world may consider this part of the world to be paradise (as exemplified by Forgetting Sarah Marshall and 50 First Dates; perhaps not so much in From Here to Eternity), it is terribly mundane for the ordinary folk who live there.
The central triumph of the film is down to the chemistry between Matt and his daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). These two share the most screen time, and their relationship is really the lynchpin for the entire film. Other characters come and go (most significantly perhaps Matthew Lillard, whom I haven’t seen in yonks), but it’s basically the ‘Alexandra and Matt Show’, which is great. Clooney is in fine form. The film allows for some terrific sombre moments and he handles these with aplomb. The narrative isn’t without its flaws – some decisions towards the end of the film seem without proper foundation – but this could perhaps be seen as deliberate ambiguity rather than shoddy inconsistency.
The Descendants is warm, witty and melancholy at the same time. A solid drama that spills over into wonderful thanks to the performances of Woodley and Clooney. It’s certainly a good start to 2012.Rating: