The Descendants, George Clooney’s latest vehicle, was a film that somehow passed me by until now. Not seduced by the trailers or advertisements, I was worried the film may stray too far into unfortunate over-sentimentality and drama for its own sake. I should have, of course, known better – George Clooney has delivered consistently over the past decade, and other than last year’s Ides of March, I had no reason to doubt his judgement. While the rest of the cast was composed largely of relative unknowns, director Alexander Payne also brings a strong track record from Paris, Je t’Aime, About Schmidt, and Sideways. The Descendants is his first feature since 2004, and it honestly delivers, I felt, on every emotional note the film is meant to play. Luckily, it also manages to avoid the hazards of pushing those feeling on its audience.
Which may be why certain audiences that find themselves not identifying with the main character might not feel it. The main character is Matt King, played, naturally, by George Clooney himself, whose wife is in terminal condition following a boating accident. The Hawaiian land baron is forced to deal with his children, relaying the news of his wife’s upcoming passing to friends and relatives, dealing with the realization of his wife’s unfaithfulness, and making a decision on a large, until now untouched, piece of real estate in Hawaii. If reading the previous sentence made you feel exhausted, you are a step closer to understanding Matt King’s character. The good news is that none of the preceding plots are handled in a clichéd manner. While some characters look like cardboard cutouts at the beginning, this impression never lasts, whether that applies to King’s elder daughter Alexandra, or her stoner friend Sid. There are no good or bad characters, just ones reacting, fairly realistically and appropriately for their natures, to the situations they find themselves in.
Matt King is not the nicest guy you’ll see in cinema. He makes, on a regular basis, questionable decisions, and occasionally comes off as an actual jerk, but a flawless person in his situation would simply be unbelievable. Pushing for that would have set the film well on the course for boredom. Because we know the character is capable of failure, we are far more likely to root for the occasional emotional successes.
The oddest part of the film is the occasional comedic framing of George Clooney’s persona, and his own insistence on occasionally playing an essentially unfunny scene for laughs. This isn’t actually bad, however. While it is occasionally slightly jarring – a particular moment of the top of Clooney’s head sticking out from behind a hedge in a faux-detective fashion – it also manages to contribute to the overall feeling on non-sentimentality.
On a final note, it was particularly nice to see Robert Forster in the film, and in one of the funniest scenes of the movie no less. His character of the father blaming, at least partially, his son-in-law for the death of his daughter, was not particularly likable, but like the rest of the movie, was honest.