“Election” director Alexander Payne brings his cast and crew, led by actor George Clooney, to a place where the sun is always shining and the weather is always warm and breezy.
Yet, much like Clooney’s character Matt King states in the opening narration of “The Descendants,” just because you appear to be on a permanent vacation doesn’t mean you don’t have your problems.
While raunchy farces such as the 2009 comedy “Couples Retreat” seemingly use their tropical settings as a paid vacation for its all-star actors, in “The Descendants,” Hawaii is simply a warm reminder that even throughout the gloominess being portrayed onscreen there’s still a little beauty that can shine through.
When Matt King’s wife is put into a coma following a tragic boating accident, he’s stuck trying to reconnect with his two daughters he barely knows. While that sounds like the start of so many other films, that’s also where the similarities end, because the journey of self-discovery doesn’t just await Matt, but also his two daughters and the eldest’s lovable stoner friend.
What’s hardest for Matt, however, is learning his wife has been having an affair with another man and a good portion of his friends knew about it. Faced with his wife’s slowly deteriorating health and pressure from his extended family to sell a beautiful piece of Hawaiian real estate passed down from his ancestors, he chooses to use these turbulent times to come to terms with a life that hasn’t necessarily been lived to the fullest.
For Clooney, an actor who can often be overshadowed by his own superstardom, the role of Matt King is certainly not in line with his typical suave persona. King is somewhat hopeless and driven mostly by his frugal nature, only spending enough to give his family a comfortable life without ever letting them feel they don’t have to work for the things they want.
There are both downsides to King as well as many things he does right, and Clooney pulls off the role with an engaging and powerful performance. While he’s been the anchor of films such as “Up in the Air” and “The American,” he’s never quite shined like he does here.
There’s also plenty of praise reserved for the actresses who portray Clooney’s daughters, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller, with the former about as far away as possible from her role on the uncomfortably sterile teen-drama “The Secret Life of an American Teenager” as Clooney’s precocious older daughter. Clooney may be the star, but these two help form an ensemble that really gives “The Descendants” a momentum that wouldn’t exist solely on Clooney’s charm.
There are also appearances by veteran character actors such as Beau Bridges and Robert Forster, but “Scooby-Doo” star Matthew Lillard’s brief but pivotal role as the man whom Matt’s wife was having an affair with may steer his career in a direction that doesn’t involve computer-generated dogs.
Along with an original score consisting of traditional music by Hawaiian musicians such as Gabby Pahinui and Keola Beamer, “The Descendants” initially takes its time to find a rhythm. Yet once it does, it pulsates in a way that allows audiences to revel in the humor of each moment, even if it’s sometimes punctuated with agony.
A key to the film’s success is a screenplay that balances sharp wit with sustained moments of emotional trauma, and has been adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel along with Payne’s additional rewrites by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Both individuals are primarily known for providing laughs in movies like “Bad Teacher” and television series like “Community,” where Rash plays the notoriously flamboyant Dean Pelton, but the script for “The Descendants” proves they are capable of some rather enlightening work.
It’s a story of family, ancestry and following your own path, topics chronicled in Payne’s films “About Schmidt” and “Sideways,” but never quite as well as it is here. This could be Payne’s most potent blend since his 1999 classic “Election,” and it’s reassuring to see such an accomplished director still making the sort of mature and thoughtful work he’s become known for.
While “The Descendants” may not be the feel-good movie of this holiday season, it’s certainly one that could be enjoyed by a family. It isn’t sentimental treacle – it is true and honest to an occasionally uncomfortable point – but Payne proves that sometimes acknowledging each other’s flaws is the best way to reconnect as a family.