By Richard Schickel
Matt King is used to things going his way. He is the scion of old Hawaiian wealth who’s about to get a lot richer when he sells off some prime island real estate that’s been in the family for more than a century. He has a pretty wife and a couple of fractious, but promising, children and, besides, he looks and acts an awful lot like everybody’s favorite movie star, George Clooney.
Then, however, the inevitable bad patch is encountered. There’s a boating accident and his wife lies deathly still in a coma that is apparently irreversible. Besides which, her eldest daughter, Alexandra (an unimprovable Shailene Woodley), has discovered that Mom had been having an affair with a striving real estate operator, who is, one supposes, an OK kind of guy, but—how to put it?—not exactly in George Clooney’s league. Beyond that, Matt is suddenly uncertain that he wants to do that big real estate deal, after all. There must be more to life than making his largely feckless relatives undeservedly richer than they already are.
“The Descendants” is the work of director Alexander Payne, the gentle giant of nice-guy filmmaking (“Sideways,” “About Schmidt”), and, as before, he is not about winding his stories tight and tense. Basically, Clooney ambles amiably through this story, puzzled that his wife decided to have an affair with an obviously inferior human being, yet, at the same time—fair’s fair and all that—willing to let him pay a last farewell to her before the plug is pulled—if that’s something he has the sand to do. Matt, as noted, is a seriously good guy.
I don’t think “The Descendants” would work nearly as well as it does if Payne, who also collaborated on the screenplay, had not supplied it with a supporting cast of mildly, but believably eccentric, characters. They include Robert Forster as Matt’s bumptious father-in-law, quick-fisted, slightly dimwitted, but a man fully committed to his daughter’s somewhat errant worth; Alexandra’s boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), who only seems to be a dope and eventually turns out to be something like the conscience of the picture; even Brian, the real estate agent (Matthew Lillard), is not a bad guy—just a commonplace opportunist, while his wife, played by Judy Greer, is a model of common sense who finally gives way to more emotion than we thought she was capable of. These people provide the grit that causes this movie to sputter—and even clank—into wayward life just enough times to rescue it from blandness.
Which is, I have to admit, an ever-present threat. There are, frankly, a touch too many strolls along the beach that don’t lead to anything very punchy, a bit too much patience in Clooney’s performance, though I must say he has a very nice line in comical running and skulking. Mitigating his circumstances is the fact that he is actually a man in shock. He was born to privilege (and never let it be forgotten) in a climate, a landscape, that is probably as close as we get to paradise on Earth.
Perversely, perhaps, we leave “The Descendants” with something like hope for Matt. He has been tested by his wife’s passing; he really was too calm, too steady, too boring to fully engage her attention—the result for her being, among other things, a tragic interest in extreme sports and, yes, totally banal sexual activities. We think—better make that hope—that he will do better in his future real estate dealings.
Meantime, we are left with this pleasantly purring movie—more dry and muted than sentimental—to conjure with. We exist today in a climate of movie extremes—extreme action, extreme comedy. There are not many mild, agreeable pictures that take place in pleasant surroundings and with people we can identify with in dealing with issues that at sometime or other all of us will have to engage. As it happens, I saw this one in a regular theater with regular people in attendance. They did not care that the movie could have been funnier. Or strike a more intense, even tragic note. They were just happy to be in the presence of normal people who end the movie cuddling on a couch and eating ice cream. They applauded this act of normalcy. I do, too—with at least one hand. But I’m also hoping that this is not a trend’s beginning—just a happy accident for your holiday delectation.
Editor’s note: Because of a typographical error, the term “gentle giant” originally appeared in this review as “gentile giant.”
Adult contemporary Clooney: “The Descendants” features George Clooney as Matt King, beleaguered dad to two daughters, including Alexandra, played by Shailene Woodley.