Matt King (George Clooney) is a property magnate in Hawaii whose life is turned upside down when his wife has a boating accident and slips into a coma. His daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), angry with her mum about the situation tells Matt that she was having an affair with another man. Angry and betrayed, Matt begins searching for the man, juggling the responsibilities of being a single parent while the sale of the family plot to real estate investors looms over him and his future.
Everything about The Descendants scrams Oscar-bait. Alexander Payne is a former Oscar-nominated Director with an Oscar-winning leading man in Clooney and the story is filled with drama and pathos befitting a candidate for the golden statuette. But do not be fooled, The Descendants not only deserves the plaudits it’s been receiving, but is a gentle reminder that Clooney and Payne are two of the most talented men working in Hollywood at the moment. And both men can find humour and charm in the most unlikely places.
The setup about the husband torn between guilt, anger and betrayal over his wife’s infidelity reads like the beginnings of a melodrama, but in the genius hands of the director of Sideways, Election and About Schmidt, it becomes a comedy. Like all of Payne’s best work, The Descendants is at its core a comedy, but his great skill is his ability to find humour in the most startling of places. Just when you’re engaged by the dramatic performances (Clooney has never been better) he blindsides you with a visual gag, or an inappropriate comment from a minor character that forces you to laugh even though you know the situation shouldn’t allow you to.
The Descendants also coyly plays with the preconceptions that the audience have. Most going into it will know it’s set in Hawaii and stars A-List George Clooney, a fantasy match made in heaven, but Payne quickly strips Clooney of his cool and suave image will showing Hawaii in a truthful manner through a series of tracking shots that reveal that while it does have natural beauty, it is also not the paradise that other films would lead us to believe. With a real sense of atmosphere and location, Payne then populates his Hawaii with characters of depth and watchability. From Nick Krause’s laid-back, inappropriate Sid, to Matthew Lillard’s scumbag realtor all the way to star performer Woodley, who demands attention throughout for her pitch-perfect portrayal of tearaway daughter. Everyone hits their stride with careless ease that highlights just what a fantastic director Payne really is.
Rippling with a snappy script, a perfect running time (just over 100 minutes) and with a cast all giving the performances of their lifetimes, The Descendants is one of the most engaging, thought-provoking and supremely crafted films of the year. It sometimes struggles to find its groove as either a comedy or a drama, but rather walks the line between the two, dipping its toe into each pool when necessary.