On the beautiful islands of Hawaii, Matt King’s (George Clooney) world crashes down when the real estate lawyer is hit with two bombshells at once. First, he learns that his wife (Patricia Hastie), who suffered a boating accident and has languished in a coma for weeks, isn’t going to get better. Her living will makes it obvious what will happen next, even if Matt and his two daughters aren’t ready for inevitable.
Things only get more complicated when breaking the news to his oldest daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) Matt learns his wife has been having an affair and it’s this, not the daughter’s recently troubling behavior, which was the cause of the friction between mother and daughter in recent months.
Through his anger and grief Matt tries to keep his dysfunctional family together, deal with the outbursts of his younger daughter (Amara Miller) in school, and put up with Alexandra’s moron of a boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), all while managing a complicated land sale that means millions of dollars for his extended family.
Written and directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election), and based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants is a mix of humor and raw emotion as the work-obsessed father finds himself not only thrust into the position of single parent but also obsessed with the affair his wife had been keeping from him.
Over the course of the film Matt is forced to break the news to the couple’s friends and family, including his father-in-law (Robert Forster) who never thought Matt was good enough for his daughter. He also decides to track down his wife’s lover (Matthew Lillard) on one of the nearby islands, bringing along his two daughters and Sid, not for vengeance, but in an attempt to get his questions answered and give the other man a chance to say goodbye.
Payne is terrific in providing sequences and characters that are more than they initially appear. Even Sid, the idiot boyfriend Matt only keeps around to keep his daughter happy, could have been nothing more than a one-joke plot device, but Payne gives the character a moment alone with Matt that makes you view him in an entirely different light. It’s just one of the many simple, yet amazing, choices of the filmmaker that showcases how much thought has gone into every frame of this film.
For a movie about the betrayal of an affair The Descendants isn’t afraid to let Matt vent at his comatose wife or carry around the hurt mixed-up with his grief. He admits to his own failings as a husband and father, feels betrayed by his wife’s actions, and still loves her deeply. The emotions portrayed by every character are complex, often competing against each other, even as they say their final goodbyes to a member of their family.
And that, more than anything else, is what The Descendants is all about. Family. How it can drive you insane, infuriate you, and hurt you in ways that nothing else compares. It’s also about coming together in the face of tragedy, bridging gaps that have developed over time, and knowing when to let go of hurts and recriminations.
The Descendants is one of the year’s best. It’s a smart, engaging drama with its share of both humorous and emotionally crushing moments. Clooney’s reactions to the circumstances he finds himself thrust into are worth the price of admission alone. This is a movie you don’t want to miss.