Movie at a glance ...
3.5 out of 4 stars
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Robert Forster and Matthew Lillard
As the waves lap up the shore, all the driftwood, shells and other beach bric-a-brac are swept out to sea, only to be replaced again by new items again and again.
Such is the way of the human mind, with fresh crises filling the role of old problems before they’re even dealt with.
A hard lesson, to be sure, but one the people in “The Descendants” have to go through in order to cope with the hand life has dealt them.
“Harmonious” has never been a word used to describe the family of Honolulu lawyer Matt King (George Clooney).
As one of the scions of King Kamehameha I, he has quite a nest egg in money and Hawaiian property, but his perceived stinginess has put him at odds with his daughters, Scottie and Alexandra (Amara Miller, Shailene Woodley) and especially his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie).
With his hands already full handling a crucial business deal, Matt must reconnect with his kids when Elizabeth lands in a coma. He doesn’t know how he’ll handle the daunting duty of being their sole parent when he receives the horrible news that Elizabeth will not recover.
Having to pull the plug on her life support in accordance with her wishes is hard enough, as is telling all her family and friends that she will soon die. The worst is yet to come for Matt, however, when he has to cope with a new truth: His wife was cheating on him.
Not many men can do it convincingly, but Clooney can run the gamut of emotions with just a single look: grief, fury, fear, and in a very small instance with Matt, happiness. Playing someone so obviously dissatisfied with himself is a challenge for the man who’s been perceived more than once as smug in his real life, but however you feel about Clooney’s public personality, he makes it easy to connect with Matt in his tumultuous time.
Woodley is pleasantly snarky as teenage Alex, a rebellious sort whose confession that she’s seen her mom in flagrante delicto hits her papa like a crateful of coconuts. It’s hard not to feel bad for someone so young coping with such a burden, but once her mean-spirited façade drops, it’s downright unfathomable.
Nick Krause is a delightful side character, Alex’s platonic friend Sid, who somehow manages to get attached to Matt as he makes his rounds breaking the bad news to loved ones, managing to get coldcocked by Matt’s sour father-in-law (Robert Forster).
Warning: when an old man says he’s going to hit you, he’ll do it.
Matthew Lillard takes a break from being the dopey stoner dog owner of “Scooby-Doo,” playing the real estate agent who was seeing Elizabeth. And, as if the fact that he might profit from Matt's forthcoming land transaction isn’t enough, he’s got his own wife that he was stepping out on, with Judy Greer wonderful in a miniscule part as his betrayed spouse, with whom Matt feels a connection for more reasons than one.
People coming to terms with things not going their way is director Alexander Payne’s bread and butter, or in the case of his newest movie, Spam and poi. After a lengthy hiatus from full-length films following 2004’s “Sideways,” his most recent work was a poignant contribution to the collection of shorts, “Paris, Je T’Aime.”
The writer/director of “Election” and “About Schmidt” comes back to features with a vengeance for this portrait of a family that lives in the tropics, yet the only person who makes a point of enjoying it is permanently unconscious.
Watching Matt curse out someone who can’t respond back kind of sums up the general feeling that the Kings are past the point of no return when it comes to healing their relationship as it is, with the only option to plow through and try to make a new start.
But, ripping off that Band-Aid can’t be done in one quick yank.
The agony of a slow, inch-by-inch pull is a necessity, and Payne knows how to make us smile and commiserate while all this unpleasantness is going on, providing us with thought-provoking looks at Hawaii in the background and making an altogether moody, contemplative film about people in pain.
If you think island living is all flowery shirts, leis and ukuleles, “The Descendants” will set you straight that people still have to cope with real problems on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and the like.
But, even if this ruins your dream vacation or retirement, you’ll still feel compelled to say “mahalo” for the chance to see such a place, Matt's grouchiness notwithstanding.
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