Popular wisdom tells us to never speak ill of the dead. But what if the dead aren’t quite dead yet? Alexander Payne runs us straight up against this question in The Descendants. It may not be the best work that Payne has ever done, nor the best of Clooney, but even a mediocre film by either of them is still pretty good.
Matthew King (George Clooney) is one of the descendants of King Kamehameha of Hawaiʻi, through a princess who married an American a century and a half ago. Their fortune carried on down through four generations in a trust shared by Matt and about a dozen members of his extended family. But as it happens Matt is the sole remaining trustee, and even this won’t last for long, as the rule against perpetuities will force the trust to be dissolved in seven years. Before that happens, the family is figuring out what they want to do with a huge chunk of Kauaʻi they own.
As if that weren’t difficult enough, Matt’s wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie, not that it particularly matters) is in the hospital in a coma. Always a bit wild, she had an accident in a powerboat race, hit her head, and nearly drowned right there. But it looks like she’s not going to make it through, anyway, and in accordance with her living will she’s going to be removed from life support. Matt has always played the supporting role in raising his daughters — seventeen-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) — but now he’s thrust into the lead at an incredibly difficult time. Scottie seems pretty typical for ten, and I sympathize with Matt in his bemusement at her. Alexandra is more difficult; uncomfortably like her mother, she’s already had a few bouts of wildness. After Matt retrieves her — drunk — from her boarding school, she insists on the company of her friend Sid (Nick Krause), who’s surprisingly helpful for someone you just want to punch early and often.
The other shoe drops when Alexandra reveals that her recent unresolved fight with her mother was that she’d caught Elizabeth having an affair. And so Matt bundles up his daughters — and Sid — to Kauaʻi to give them a bit of a break from the hospital and to search out this interloper to tell him about Elizabeth’s coma. Why isn’t exactly clear, and it may not be clear to Matt himself, but he’s in over his head and it seems as good a plan as any.
Stories about a family coming apart in a crisis are a dime a dozen; Payne’s adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel instead gives us a story about a family coming together. Naturally, given the subject, it can be sad at times — I defy anyone to not tear up when they break the news to Scottie — but it’s shot through with an engaging sweetness that buoys it up. The Descendants has neither the manic desperation of Sideways nor the existential dread of About Schmidt, but Matt — like Miles and Schmidt — is another of Payne’s lost men, albeit one we leave on a somewhat happier note. Clooney isn’t bad, but this is not the performance of his career. And Woodley, while promising, doesn’t provide the strong support Virginia Madsen and Kathy Bates did.
But though the film may suffer in comparison with its director’s best, it shines in comparison with most. Payne reproves himself as the master of the awkward — and the awkwardly humorous — as he presents a less ambitious but still thoroughly enjoyable heartwarmer that reminds us that whatever happens, we’re going to make it through this thing.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.