One of the most striking moments in The Descendants is when George Clooney’s character Matt King stumbles onto the secret that his wife has been cheating on him. He puts on a pair of floppy loafers, then runs clumsily over to their friends’ home in his neighbourhood in Hawaii. Matt is frantically seeking answers – who is the other man? Since when has this been carrying on? Did she love him? Answers that his wife, lying comatose on a hospital bed, can’t give him.
The Descendants is a unique tragi-comedy that makes you look at life, family and priorities with new eyes. Like previous films directed by Alexander Payne, such as About Schmidt and Sideways, this film’s leading man is going through a crisis of character. He’s on a rather shaky road to becoming a better man. The Descendants continues on this familiar stretch with the story of lawyer Matt King, a ‘back-up’ parent faced with becoming the only parent to his two difficult daughters, Alex and Scottie, when his wife slips into a coma after a water-skiing accident.
Matt is an awkward dad and an indifferent husband, caught up in his other role as trustee of a sweeping ancestral property in idyllic Hawaii that he and his cousins want to sell in a multi-million dollar deal. In one blow, Matt has to figure out how to say goodbye to his old relationships and forge new ones.
Life is messy, and The Descendants is a film that celebrates that. In fact, through its rather loopy, free-flowing structure, painfully real dialogues and sense of irony, writer-director Payne walks us through the emotions just as Matt struggles with every decision. The film has several laugh-aloud moments in the bumpy parent-child ride, not least because Matt’s daughters have colourful vocabularies, along with being rebellious and quirky. You’re also drawn in by other characters like Matt’s surly father-in-law, and Sid, Alex’s spaced-out male friend.
Beautifully photographed and tenderly scored, The Descendants is a movie that hinges primarily on its performances, and Payne does an excellent job of making every actor deliver. Shailene Woodley is terrific as Alex, torn between rage against her mother, and pain over having to say goodbye. Amara Miller is incredibly endearing as little Scottie with the potty mouth. And George Clooney disappears into his inept character Matt…from those unflatteringly tucked-in Hawaiin shirts to his persisting unsure behavior. It’s already amongst my favourite performances, and one worth savouring.
In fact, I’m going to ask you to do just that – to savour Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. It’s an emotional rollercoaster ride that’ll have you smiling through that lump in your throat.
It’s a must-watch.