The Descendants: George Clooney’s Tragedy in Paradise

Alexander Payne's tale of a grieving Honolulu husband has been touted as Oscar bait but it's closer to Hawaii Five-No

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Merie Wallace / Fox Searchlight

George Clooney and Shailene Woodley in a scene from The Descendants.

I ought to love The Descendants. The film stars George Clooney, that splendid Hollywood anachronism of smart, cool, liberal charm. It was directed and cowritten by Alexander Payne, whose Election and Sideways elevated two tired movie clichés — a high-school bitch goddess and buddies on the road — into character studies that were both complex and faultlessly entertaining. Payne’s bright, lightly satiric tone seemed a perfect mate to Clooney’s genial éclat. I also liked what I’d heard about The Descendants‘ theme: a comedy-drama about grief. My hope was that the movie, which I saw in Sept. at the Toronto International Film Festival, would deal as deftly with the subjects of mourning and coping as Clooney’s Up in the Air had with the pleasures and emptiness of middle-aged emotional solitude.

(MORE: Read how Payne went up with Sideways)

It didn’t happen for me. Watching this adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’s 2007 novel about a man facing family crises in the modern Eden of Hawaii, I wanted the movie’s elevated sentiments to wash over me, inundate me in its lapping warmth, like the restorative waters on a Kauai beach. I’m a notorious softie—I have been known to tear up during beer commercials—but I remained untouched by The Descendants. I must have been wearing my wet suit.

Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian real-estate magnate whose family, on the island for centuries, must soon dispose of a huge plot of prime land it has long held. That dilemma is pushed aside when a water-skiing accident leaves Matt’s wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) in an irreparable coma. Since her will specifies that she be taken off life support, Matt gathers up their two daughters — rambunctious Scottie (Amara Miller), 10, and rebellious, drug-using Alex (Shailene Woodley), 17 — and Alex’s goofy boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) for an inter-island journey to tell Liz’s relatives and close friends that they should visit her in the few days before she dies. “Everybody who loved Elizabeth,” he says, “deserves a chance to say goodbye.” But what if she loved one of these close friends back? Alex tells Matt that Mom may have had an affair, just before she was stricken, with a realtor named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). On the far side of this Pacific paradise, Matt grapples with feelings of bereavement and betrayal.

In wrestling the Hemmings book into movie form, Payne and co-screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash begin by having Clooney do voice-over narration. His observations can be amusing — “Some of the most powerful people in Hawaii look like bums and stuntmen” — but the approach is unimaginative, as if the film were setting out to be a video-book of the novel. (The voice-over eventually disappears.) For the next hour we trot around with Matt as he informs relatives of Liz’s condition and susses out clues to the identity of her secret beau. These characters are often daubed with too broad a brush: they are either so laid-back as to be supine or, in the case of Liz’s father Scott (Robert Forster, who’s excellent), fiercely resentful and choleric. When Sid ignorantly giggles at the vagueness of Scott’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife, the old man punches the young one in the face.

That’s a reprimand audiences had been wishing for, since Sid has been acting the idiot. Later we are told this island ignoramus was a member of his school’s chess club, and Sid is meant to be revealed as a solid citizen and mensch. Payne pursues this tactic throughout the film: caricaturing people before he tries to humanize them. But the characters don’t ripen organically; they’re first one thing, then another. In a few instances the change is more subtle, as with Alex the teen daughter, who in a one-sided conversation with her unresponsive mother whispers, with mingled reverence and resentment, “I always wanted to be like you. I am like you, I’m exactly like you.” Alex might be the daughter in another love-and-death family epic that played the fall festival circuit, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Franco-Canadian Café de Flore — a bolder narrative experiment than The Descendants, and a film that sustains its emotional equilibrium in a story about the one who loves and the one who leaves.

(MORE: Read Mary Corliss’ review of Café de Flore)

Not until its final act does The Descendants ascend — or, in Payne terms, go Sideways — into sharp social comedy. [SPOILER SPREE: When Matt tracks down Brian, he announces, “Elizabeth’s dying,” then corrects himself. “Sorry: f--- you, Elizabeth’s dying.” Matt asks Brian if he was ever in the King bedroom, and Brian says once. “You could have had the decency to lie about that,” Matt replies, and Brian says, “All right. Twice.” This tense exchange is a battle of two facial types — Clooney’s resolute handsomeness, Lillard’s deep dimples freezing into fault lines — and, ultimately, two opposing world views. When Brian shrugs off the affair by saying, “It just happened,” Matt snaps, “Nothing just happens,” and Brian counters, “Everything just happens.” The perplexing profundity here is that they could both be right. CESSATION OF SPOILERS.]

In The Descendants, Clooney is responsible for everything right that happens. He’s an actor so secure in the audience’s affection for him that he can play characters whose appeal is entirely surface, like the politician in his other autumn movie, The Ides of March. This time his character, whose flaws are evident from the start, inches toward the everyday heroism of accepting the inevitable. Clooney’s smile has always semaphored a knowing indulgence for life’s ridiculous aspects, and he instantly slips under the skin and into the Hawaiian couture of Matt, a cuckolded hero trying to register a pained gravitas while wearing shorts and flip flops. He suavely navigates Matt’s internal pilgrimage: from the first awful news — with a look of gray devastation, as if he is channeling his wife’s coma by becoming a member of the walking dead — to the shouldering of parental responsibility and the grudge match with the man who took his place in Elizabeth’s affections.

With no sweat or obvious editorializing, Clooney turns Matt’s churning emotions into eloquent verses in the liturgy of grieving and redemption. It’s just a shame that the rest of The Descendants couldn’t rise to meet the artistry he pours into it.

MORE: Read Richard Corliss’ review of The Ides of March

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