Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller and Nick Krause. Written by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Directed by Alexander Payne. Rated R.
His wife in a severe coma after a power boat racing accident, Matt King (Clooney) — a self-professed "backup parent; the understudy," — is struggling to care for his two daughters, oversee a major land deal involving a huge parcel of virgin Hawaiian land that's been in his extended family for generations, and deal with the grief that comes with the news that his wife will not be recovering. Her plug, as per her will, is soon to be pulled. And the cherry bombshell to top it all off: by way of his eldest daughter Alexandra (Woodley) comes the news that Matt's wife has been cheating on him. I think it might be safe to call this a bit of a "rough patch" for poor old Matt ...
A synopsis like the one above could (and should) lead you to believe that The Descendants is an oppressive downer; but in the ever deft hands of director Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt, Election), what could be a dreary drama is consistently lightened by comic touches, mild mayhem and the inherently lifting lilt of an all Hawaiian score. The film's heart feels more consistently in place than does its funny bone — the tagalong, stoner surfer-dude friend of Matt's daughter feels particularly out of place at times — but as a whole The Descendants provides a rich filmic experience led by a brilliantly nuanced performance from George Clooney. Somehow Clooney manages to slide along just about the entire spectrum of human emotion, from grief to rage to confusion to all the slightly less depressing moments that lie in between, without ever overplaying it. It's an incredibly touching journey we're given the opportunity to take with him here, and if you're keen on travels through life's trials and tribulations, The Descendants is a trip you don't want to miss.