Review: The Descendants

jason stives looks at the drama that could net Alexander Payne and George Clooney Oscar nods …

No one should walk blindly into director Alexander Payne’s latest film The Descendants. You should be warned about a film with such a questionable and depressing subject if you decide to take a date to see it. Even I found myself wondering if a story like this is worth the aggravation of being saddened for two hours and the subsequent ride home.

So why subject myself to a painful venture into the art of dying and forgiveness? Payne’s previous film, Sideways, tackled fragile and dysfunctional people but left a large onslaught of humor to elapse the characters’ frequent problems. With The Descendants, I assumed the subject of a man coming to terms with learning his comatose wife once had an affair resonated some underlying notion of hope and moving on with life (comparatively to, say, Payne’s work on About Schmidt). While it does indeed tackle the latter, The Descendants is filled with characters consumed with being selfish and individualistic, and that is what really hurts this film.


Matt King (Clooney) is a lawyer in the middle of a big land sale that involves all of his living relatives and the 25,000 acres of prime Hawaiian island that their family inherited hundreds of years ago. While his cousins delegate the means and necessities of the sale, King must deal with his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), who has been injured and left in a coma from a jet-ski accident. Day in and day out when he isn’t practicing law, he is by her bed, keeping his wife company, but when he is informed that she ultimately will die, Matt is forced to reconcile his family one last time for her sake.

Shailene Woodley portrays Matt’s eldest daughter Alex, an immature and emotionally distraught teenager with a grudge against her ailing mother, which we find out is because of her purported infidelity with a mysterious man. Combined with the performance of Amara Miller, who plays the youngest daughter Scottie, I found myself fearing for the notion of ever having daughters. They are polar opposites but very much the same at different times in life. Scottie is oblivious to where mother’s mental state and is also susceptible to the mentions of her health, something too difficult to comprehend in a 10-year-old’s eyes.

Alex, on the other end, is a bitter teen who rages against her mother’s wrongdoing — only seeing pain and not sympathy. It’s only through her journey with her father to find her mother’s lover does she learn to accept and let her anger pass. This anger is something that Matt holds against his wife as well but doesn’t broadcast as quickly because of his almost patriarchal-like status in his family.


Clooney once again proves he’s the modern Carey Grant — a man with the ability to play on the surface the same man but with a vast range of emotions and layers that most actors only wish to convey. As King, he is civilized but also quick to go off the handle, showcasing a side that is battling against his own personal blindness and inconsiderate nature to his free-spirit wife. When he confronts his wife (if only in her comatose state), you can see a scared man and one frustrated with his actions over the years. When he does finally meet up with the man his wife has been seeing, a realtor and silent partner in King’s land sale named Brian Speer (played with dumbfounded ease by Matthew Lillard), he doesn’t act out of character, instead making his subtle actions speak louder than anything else, telling him that Elizabeth his going to die and that he should make peace even though he will never forgive him personally.

There is much to be said in the idea of forgiving someone on their death bed, especially since it’s an idea we all have thought about in life, the “what if I died tomorrow?” guilt trip that strained relationships can force on one another. For all their personal issues, the King clan try to maintain unity even if it’s not as functional as one would hope. While most of the film maintains its serious demeanor, there is still humor in it and many of the best moments comes from Clooney’s interaction with his daughter’s knucklehead beau Sid (Nick Krause). On the surface, Matt sees an idiot, furthered by his father-in-law’s sudden sucker punch of Sid, but Sid is a guy devoid of grudges and really feels at one with the world he lives in. He is frustrating to watch no doubt, but his sudden expression of his inner self makes Sid far more tolerable for the rest of the film.


Payne paces the film in the same leisurely way as the Hawaiian surroundings convey, even though there is a lot at stake for the characters. Beautiful picturesque shots of the Hawaiian islands work well as a backdrop to what is basically a manhunt in Matt’s eyes, even if it is just to see the deceptive face of his wife’s lover. Outside of the surroundings, though, it’s hard to gel with these people, and a lot of it lies in how selfish they all seem even in a time of mourning. The Kings are independent people no doubt but they ultimately covet that independence for the wrong reasons and their vegetative mother was no different. However, the imminent events of her death are heartbreaking and a sudden splash of cold water that reminds you of how cruel people and the world can be to one another until it’s too late to go back.

Make no mistake, The Descendants is a good movie, but for reasons far beyond its characters and situation — which is what ultimately hurts any sense of enjoyment. Clooney and company give very heart-wrenching performances that are almost too real to comprehend, but then again, a story about life’s lessons most likely would be. At the end, instead of seeing the characters reflect on themselves, you are ultimately reflecting upon yourself as a human being.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10 (Good not Great)


  1. Clooney and everybody else included is great but it’s really Payne who shines as the writer bringing out some funny humor but not without forgetting about the real rich moments of human drama. Good review.

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