Superb ‘Descendants’ delivers pathos in paradise

Article Published: Feb. 9, 2012 | Modified: Feb. 9, 2012
Superb ‘Descendants’ delivers pathos in paradise

George Clooney and Shailene Woodley star in ‘The Descendants.’

“The Descendants” is a film worthy of its inheritance – in this case, a fistful of Oscar nominations.

But more than that, it’s a film to remember. Stellar performances, solid storytelling and expert direction make it so, as director Alexander Payne (“Sideways”) delivers his first feature-length film in seven years.

He hasn’t lost his touch. Payne weaves a wonderfully human story about life, love, loss and acceptance without dipping into maudlin sentiment or saccharine sap. In less capable hands, it could easily have gone the other way, but Payne strikes a perfect balance of comedy and drama that makes “Descendants” one of 2011’s most watchable films.

The exotic Hawaiian backdrop helps, but protagonist Matt King (George Clooney, “Up in the Air”) is quick to dispel the notion of paradise. Hawaiians suffer from illness, heartbreak and real life just like anyone else, despite their idyllic surroundings.

One such is Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie, “Princess Kaiulani”) Matt’s wife, who is rendered comatose after a boating accident. A self-described “backup parent,” Matt, who up till now has focused more on work than family, is seemingly ill-equipped to raise his two daughters, rambunctious 10-year-old Scottie (newcomer Amara Miller) and troubled 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley, TV’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager”).

To make matters more complicated, he’s stuck in the middle of a major real estate deal that could shape the future of his family and the state of Hawaii. His family tree traces back to Hawaiian royalty, when his white great-great-great-grandfather married a Hawaiian princess. Although well to do as an attorney, Matt doesn’t let his inherited wealth dictate his life, rather living modestly off his own earnings.

His inheritance, however, includes hundreds of acres of pristine land on Kauai, held safely in trust between him and his gaggle of extended cousins.

But with the trust set to expire, Matt’s cousins have turned to him to strike a deal with one of many vying developers. Furthermore, Elizabeth’s doctor delivers a heartbreaking prognosis – she’ll never emerge from the coma, and her living will clearly states the next step.

It’s now up to Matt to tell all their relatives and friends, offering them the chance to bid her farewell.

As a cherry on top, Alex still holds a grudge against her mother, and understandably so, as she caught her red-handed in an extramarital affair, a fact she reveals to Matt after learning of the prognosis.

Utterly torn between anger – with no way to confront his wife – and grief, for he still loves her, Matt is left to grapple with a torrent of emotion in an already tumultuous time. With Scottie, Alex and her seemingly dimwitted friend, Sid (Nick Krause, “How to Eat Fried Worms”), the group hits the road to find Elizabeth’s lover (Matthew Lillard, “Scream”) and offer him the chance to say goodbye, while offering Matt the opportunity to speak his mind.

The trip offers Matt more than just conventional answers, though, as he forges a stronger relationship with his daughters, discovers that people – no matter how different or unlikeable – cope with grief in their own, sometimes offensive ways, all while learning about himself in the process.

Set to a lush Hawaiian backdrop and a fantastically fitting soundtrack of ukulele tunes, “The Descendants” beautifully juxtaposes pathos with paradise. The grass could be greener on the other side of the hill, but it really depends on how the hill is climbed.

Clooney climbs to new heights in his role, cementing his place as one of Hollywood’s finest performers, but the supporting cast, including Woodley as Alex and Robert Forster (“Jackie Brown”) as Elizabeth’s hardheaded father, adds astounding – and oftentimes subtle – depth to the narrative.

Co-written by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, and based on the novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings, “The Descendants” tackles the trials of humanity with expert finesse and grace, a remarkable film that reminds us that grass can grow green in Hollywood after all.

“The Descendants,” rated R for language, including some sexual references, is playing at Regal Cinema 7 in Boone. For show times, see page 15-B or visit

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