Watching dramas about characters thrown into tragedy along with their dysfunctional families can often be funny and not necessarily because laughs come at their expense but because they confront us about some (often painful) truth about ourselves and those around us. The Descendants is such a film.
Matt King (George Clooney) is a lawyer who lives in Hawaii and is the trustee of a family trust that controls a large portion of highly sought after land on one of the Hawaiian islands. The King family has decided to sell the land but not without discontent from at least some. In the middle of this family fun surrounding hundreds of millions of dollars, Matt’s wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), is in a boating accident which leaves her in a coma. Matt is left to care for his ten year old daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller) and parent his seventeen year old daughter, Alex (Shailene Woodley), from an island away at a boarding school.
Matt is unlike most characters played by George Clooney. Rather than smooth and suave we get careful and conservative. The normally self-confidence on display by Clooney is replaced by a man who hides behind a veil of controlled confidence that hides his quiet desperation. He works hard rather than living off his family inheritance. He wants to ensure that he still knows what it is to work and earn a living. In that process he seems to have lost touch with his wife and kids. He’s a man who would appear to have it all put together from the outside but a closer look at the inner workings of his life tell a different story. Inside we see a man who barely knows his ten year old daughter and when confronted with the task of caring for her on a day-to-day basis he shrivels at the challenge. He passively parents her as she acts out in ways that range from mild to profane. When things take a turn for the worse, Matt picks up his other daughter Alex at the boarding school and it’s there we see a child who is acting out against authority in rather typical teenage angst. Matters go from bad to worse, with Matt’s father-in-law unleashing words whose only purpose would appear to be to wound the walking wounded in Matt, a soon to be widower. And in the midst of it all Matt is confronted with a cheating spouse, one who can’t speak for herself and he can’t express his hurt towards.
In the midst of the chaos is a film that stumbles most in regards to pacing. There are moments that fly by and others that crawl for no apparent reason. Regardless of the pace, Clooney convinces throughout with his performance as a man who stands to gain the whole world but feels as though he may be losing his soul, all that truly matters to him. He is the center of the film and yet the performances around him are often just as engaging; including smaller roles like that of Sid, the at first seemingly inserted for cheap comedy value friend of Alex.
The laughs come in small spurts, as Matt confronts the onslaught of obstacles, sorrow and tragedy before him. Rising above the quirky indie comedy, The Descendants succeeds where many fail. The seriousness of the story presented is never fully played for laughs nor is there a need to redeem itself in the end with melodrama. Instead we’re left with a film that feels oddly comfortable even in the midst of uncomfortable situations.