“What is it that makes the women in my life want to destroy themselves?” wonders Matt King, regarding his wife’s current health, as well as his teenage daughter’s current rebellious attitude. Indeed, what triggered such separations and angst between Matt and his wife, and between him and his daughter? These themes, along with the roles and dysfunctions in family relationships, are tested and examined in Alexander Payne’s latest dramedy The Descendants. George Clooney gives a worthy nominated performance as Matt, a Hawaiian real estate lawyer whose wife is currently in a coma after suffering from an unexpected boating accident. Matt is determined to set things straight and to be a better father-figure for the sake of his wife and two daughters (“I’m ready to talk, ready to change, just please wake up”).
Only after explaining the situation to his oldest daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, in an impressive debut role), does he learn (from Alex) of his wife’s unsuspecting infidelity. The obvious proceeding objective would be to figure out who the man is (which the film’s plot does proceed with), but The Descendants does so much more than that. Soon enough, the whole family heads on a trip to find this man, and to get him to come see Matt’s wife before her impending death.
Payne, along with co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, have crafted a story that helps us understand and empathize (and even get surprised) with the characters and their current situations. Even more, they manage to carry the film with quite a heavy amount of emotion, with a few comedic laughs thrown in. One key moment (as seen in the film’s trailer) involves Matt running down the street in his sandals, which suggests a certain kind of comedy or amusement. But it’s a kind that’s grounded in reality, like everything else in the story. And it is this grounded notion that gives the story and characters reality, intensity, and sure enough, empathy.
The notions and illustrations of real estate. Matt mentions through narration about his family’s history and legacy in this field, and the roles his ancestors and their descendants played in said history (which may be where the film gets part of its title). This includes remembering and honoring a legacy they are a part of. “This is a part of your great-great-great-grandmother’s inheritance," Matt tells his daughters as they overview some of the land and beaches of said property. Other themes and ideas consist of negative influences on children (such as disrespect for authority), the damaging and potential consequences of one’s actions on others, trying to get through situations in a positive light (“I’m just trying to keep my head above water,” Matt tells one of his relatives), forgiving (regardless of what people do or who they are), and getting through said situations as a family. It is this latter theme that makes The Descendants one of the most thoughtful and surprisingly-understanding movies of the year.