Movie Review: The Descendants
The Charlotte Observer
Director Alexander Payne prefers to start a movie with one strike against him. He always picks a dislikable protagonist: the whiny wine enthusiast in “Sideways,” say, or the misanthropic claims adjuster in “About Schmidt.” Then, as he slowly gives characters self-awareness, he gives us reasons to watch and care about them.
So it goes in “The Descendants.” Matt King, a wealthy attorney living in Hawaii, is descended from the iconic King Kamehameha I on his mother’s side and a white missionary on his father’s. He heads a family trust that has held 25,000 acres of pristine land on Kauai for generations; when he and his cousins decide which developer should buy it, they’ll be fabulously rich. They’re “one of those Hawaii families who make money off of luck and dead people,” as Kaui Hart Hemmings put it in the novel that inspired this picture.
Matt (George Clooney) has neglected his kids, 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller). The elder dabbles with drugs at a high school for teens with behavioral problems; the younger texts cruel things to classmates and begs for attention in other ways. Now Matt must step up as a parent, because a boating accident has put his wife in a coma. When Alexandra tells him Mom has been sleeping with a real estate agent, Matt swerves between confusion and indignation. But as he stumbles out of his haze of complacent ignorance, a decent guy emerges.
Hemmings knows the ugly history of white haole colonialism in Hawaii, and the screenwriters find a moment to address that issue, too. Matt has always lived in Hawaii but considers himself a haole. He has become displaced as a dad, a husband and a Hawaiian, and he needs to redefine himself in all three ways if he can.
Payne wrote the script with Nat Faxon and Charlotte native Jim Rash, and they’re careful not to demonize or sanitize people. Matt’s father-in-law (Robert Forster), a bigoted jerk, weeps tenderly for his daughter. Matt makes a land decision we’re meant to support, but it may come partly from spite: The family would make more money from a different option, but the adulterous agent would benefit, too.
If we don’t count a movie Payne made as a student, he has directed just five features in 15 years. (The others are the uneven “Citizen Ruth,” about a slatternly single mom caught up in an abortion debate, and the brilliant “Election,” about a high school student council.)
That’s partly because he produces other projects and partly because he works so carefully to get details right. Even things that seem out of place eventually pay off, usually with wry humor: At bottom, all Payne’s films make us smile, often ruefully but hopefully.
Sid (Nick Krause), the older boyfriend who hangs around Alexandra, seems as useless as an appendix at first; his outbursts are a clumsy plot device to widen the generation gap. Then he becomes the kind of annoying/appealing outsider who gets pulled into a family tragedy and somehow never leaves. By the end, we’d miss him if he dropped out of sight.
Payne probably needed a star to get financing, and Clooney gives a solid performance. (He allegedly asked to be in “Sideways” but was rejected as too well-known.) He’s inert at the beginning, barely moved by his wife’s plight even when ignorant of her infidelity, but he builds in intensity after that.
The young people deserve the highest marks: Miller as the bratty but sympathetic girl, Krause as the good-hearted hanger-on, and especially Woodley. Movies often bungle the transition from sullen loner to caring child, but Woodley handles it with as much subtlety, depth and honesty as I’ve seen.