At the public screening of The Descendants I saw, there was gentle but earnest applause as the film ended. It’s merited, and I suspect it came from a middle-aged audience that is weary of noise and violence in our films, and respectful of anyone prepared to deal candidly with family material. That doesn’t mean this is softer than PG. It’s an R film, with a lot of rough language, most of it coming from a ten-year-old and a seventeen-year-old. When I say family material, I mean the area of dysfunction and disturbance that many of us experience, and which here falls on the handsome figure of George Clooney, who is already being talked about as an Oscar candidate.
He plays Matt King, a Honolulu lawyer, descended from aristocracy, haoles who married islanders. At the start of the film, in a rather clumsy and misleading voice-over, Matt tells us, don’t be fooled, Hawaii is just like anywhere else, with cancer and heartache—and lawyers, I suppose. Matt has his problems. His wife, Elizabeth, has been devastatingly injured in a motor-boat accident and now she’s in a coma. Very soon, she will be taken off life-support. This means that a half-hearted, part-time Dad has to take over looking after the two daughters. But when he brings the older one back from boarding school (in a gesture towards family solidarity) she breaks it to him that Elizabeth was having an affair. We begin to see what Matt is discovering: that he didn’t know enough about his family.
So far, so ordinary, in a picture (co-written and directed by Alexander Payne) that tries to find its strength in commonplace behavior and which would like us to think that Clooney looks like anyone else. But there’s more to be revealed. Matt’s family owns a 25,000-acre piece of land, on Kauai, on the shore, which is about to be sold, one way or the other, for development and a massive sum of money. Not that Matt is short of funds. This is a film in which he is able to make a trip from Oahu to Maui whenever the fancy takes him (with three kids in tow—the older girl has a boyfriend) and never does a stroke of work or seems to be under any financial limitation. More than that, despite a collection of cousins who will benefit mightily from the sale, the decision to sell or not to sell is in Matt’s hands alone, which seems prettily arranged for dramatic purposes, but way out of the ordinary.
Matt is fiftyish, he has gray in his hair and he looks rather foolish when he runs. But still he is George Clooney, and if he has been neglecting his family (including his wife) as much as we are led to believe, what has he been doing? Elizabeth has slipped into an affair while Matt says he has worked every hour of the day and night on legal cases (until the film starts). That doesn’t quite ring true, and evades the intriguing question of what the Matt and Elizabeth marriage was really like. Until we know that, it’s a lot harder to measure the unruly attitudes of the two daughters.
This good-natured, observant picture begs a lot of questions. Hawaii is not like anywhere else; nowhere is like anywhere else, or it shouldn’t be in a good movie. It is a paradise with too much poverty and abuse, which reflects the gulf between tourists and islanders. I don’t think many viewers will be in much doubt about Matt’s decision on the land, because the movie has no intention of letting Matt or Clooney be unlikeable. You can say that the character grows up in the course of the action, and Clooney himself works hard to be plausible. But he’s going against his own grain, and against the precepts of a mainstream movie which probably got made because he agreed to do it. The film admires the piece of land—there are several luxurious panning shots over the forest, the bluff, and the sea—but only in the visual terms of a brochure that might be offered to investors. Nor is the exploitation of natural resources—the repetitive history of the islands—properly explored. There may be people in Hawaii itself who smile at Matt’s decision over the land, even if they appreciate the Hawaiian music that works away in the background like the Pacific wind or the pulse of a sauna.
The film is not well shot, but it’s very well directed. From Election to Sideways, we’ve learned that Payne’s strength is with people. I don’t buy the feeling of some critics that the picture is without a false note. Too often it goes for a laugh line at the expense of credibility. But what made my audience applaud, I think, was the wealth of supporting parts and their players: Beau Bridges is outstandingly seedy and two-faced as one of the cousins; Robert Forster is unremitting as a real bastard of a good-hearted father to Elizabeth; Judy Greer is very touching as the wife of Elizabeth’s lover; Nick Krause is endlessly odd and appealing as the boyfriend, Sid, who tags along with the story and does a lot to open Matt’s eyes to deeper human realities. But the real core of the film is in Matt’s two daughters: Amara Miller as Scottie, always poignant but exceptional in the scene where she learns that her mother is going to die; and Shaileen Woodley as Alexandra, who goes from being a shrill, spiteful kid to a young woman.
This is Payne’s first film since Sideways, seven years ago, and it would be good to see more of his talent with actors, just as I suspect he’d benefit from more regular work. The Descendants is humane, decent, and close to real quality. I’m sure plenty of people will enjoy it, and Clooney feels like a deserving case by now in Hollywood circles. He might get an Oscar, but in truth he is still too comfortable being George Clooney, and being liked, to get deep enough into what ought to be a more awkward movie.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.