The Descendants shares a lot in common with other films Alexander Payne has directed (About Schmidt, Sideways) in that it is about a middle-aged man on a journey of self-discovery. A man must learn how to raise his children while making some life changing decisions. The role for George Clooney is not very typical for him and does a good job with it. Even though the film felt contrived and underwhelming it is still watchable thanks to Clooney.
Matt King (George Clooney) must take charge of the household of two children when his wife ends up in coma after a bad boating accident. He is a lawyer who makes good money but he is a descendant of a Hawaiian princess who owned 25,000 acres of paradise. Matt does not believe in spoiling his children in his own words, “I want to leave them enough for them to do something but not too much that they do nothing.”
Going from the “backup parent” as he says to the primary parent is a difficult transition but he makes it look effortless. His youngest daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller) is ten years old and is having a hard time dealing with her mother being in the hospital. She is acting out in school and insulting girls out of frustration.
She gets her rebelliousness from her older sister Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). The seventeen year old spends most of her time hanging around boys and drugs which is why she is attending a boarding school. When Matt goes to pick her up from school so they can visit the hospital, she is found drinking after sneaking out.
As if Matt’s hands were not already full, two more events occur that complicate matters even more. The first is that the land he inherited he highly sought after for major commerce development. So he must decide to appease his family who want him to sell the land for the money or to keep the land to protect it.
The real blow comes when Alexandra shares what caused her and her mother to get into a major argument before the accident. She tells her father that her mother had been cheating on him and was considering asking for a divorce. The news hits him hard as you would expect and suddenly his focus is on something different.
He and Alexandra, now fueled by a bond, decide to investigate the man that their mother was having an affair with. They find his name and where he lives but are still not quite sure what the next step should be. When the doctors tell him that his wife will not wake up from coma, Matt just wants to find out as much as he can about this man and his side of the story.
George Clooney is definitely what made this film. Without his fine work I fear that the film would have been a disaster. He is featured in nearly every scene and makes the otherwise average film into something just a little bit more.
One of the problems I have with the film is that we are giving no background on his wife Elizabeth. We do not see any flashbacks or any insight as to who she was. This makes it hard to have any strong emotions about her or empathize with Matt for his loss.
Another issue I have with The Descendants is Sid’s character, it felt unneeded. Other than offering some comic relief, he was meaningless to the story. More times than not, I found myself asking why he is even in the scene at all.
Frankly, I do not see what all the Oscar buzz around The Descendants is all about. The film is certainly not a complete bust, but I am shocked that it is considered one of the front-runners for a Best Picture Oscar. The whole film is similar to the ending, it is tolerable but it could have been better.