An offbeat family drama set in Hawaii with just the right amount of deadpan detachment, The Descendants plays like a picturesque pilot for an enjoyably quirky — but not too quirky — cable TV series. Even the title sounds more like a nighttime soap than a theatrical feature. Although the movie’s main storyline is self-contained here, the underlying set-up involving almost a dozen cousins at odds over how to dispose of 25,000 pristine beachfront acres that have been in the family for generations could go on indefinitely.
It’s the small family at the center of the film that makes it special, though. His hospitalized wife rendered brain-dead by a powerboat mishap when he wasn’t around, Honolulu lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) faces the prospect of raising their two daughters on his own. Matt is slightly shell-shocked but manfully keeping it together after 23 days of hoping for good news. Ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) is starting to act out by sending rude texts to a schoolmate. Seventeen-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley) has enough history of being a handful that she already was away at boarding school when the accident occurred. When Matt is told that his wife’s living will requires doctors to pull the plug soon, he brings Alex home so she can say goodbye.
That’s when he learns that Alex hates and resents her mother because she once caught mom with a lover. The previously unaware Matt is hurt, angry and determined to confront his wife’s secret boyfriend. He bonds with the similarly determined Alex as they try tracking down the mystery man while keeping Scottie in the dark about her mother’s infidelity.
The joker in the deck is Alex’s tag-along teenage boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), a laid-back but annoyingly direct boob who’s like a slightly rounded Keanu Reeves. He makes comments such as “don’t you wish that retarded people and old people would just hurry up,” and thinks Alex’s grandmother’s senile forgetfulness is funny. That wins him a punch in the eye from hardass granddad, played with gruff irritability by Robert Forster.
Clooney’s narration lays out so much of the story that it veers into audiobook territory, but his voiceover does include interesting observations about Hawaii and his character. Some of the state’s most powerful people “look like bums and stuntmen,” he points out. Matt acknowledges his previously inessential role in his own family by admitting that he was only “the backup parent, the understudy.”
There are enough interesting minor characters here that you’ll wish you could see more of them. Two standouts are Kai Mitchell (Mary Birdsong) and her husband Mark (Rob Huebel). Every married couple in the audience will relate to a scene in which Matt catches them loudly arguing in their home and starts to leave, but is casually reassured by Kai that “we’re just fighting.” Beau Bridges appears as Matt’s long-haired and vaguely sinister cousin Hugh, one of several relatives with a financial stake in Matt’s decision whether to sell land entrusted to them over a century ago.
Director Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt), who cowrote the screenplay with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, is good at knowing when to play things Coen-brothers cool and when to let the story warm up emotionally. As a result, the movie doesn’t so much jerk tears as earn them fair and square.
[Rating: 3.5 stars]