Movie Review: “The Descendants” – Trouble in Paradise

By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

As fascinating, emotional and astute as Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” is, I can’t figure why this tale of a family in crisis didn’t register a 4 on the Goldberger Scale of Lingering Rumination (GSLR). It lingered but a day. If a film earns a full 4 on the GSLR, it means you think in its mechanisms and philosophy for at least four days after seeing it.

But then you already know that, and figuring this out is my problem, not yours. Perhaps there’s a glitch in the system…maybe a short, a defective chip, or a file that isn’t running. Just rest assured while we work to correct the film judging application that you shouldn’t be at all deterred from seeing this superbly constructed movie starring George Clooney.

Aloha…you’ll be welcomed to Hawaii, and given a rather informing tour of a geography and sociology rarely utilized as the setting for a drama. Then, after being shuttled through the contrast of downtown skyscrapers, crowded freeways, bucolic trails, mountains looming at every angle and colorful, unfamiliar vegetation, we are led to the big tragedy.

Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie), wife of Mr. Clooney’s lawyer/land baron, Matt King, lies comatose in a hospital bed, the victim of a waterskiing accident. Yep…life has a way of getting our attention and establishing turning points. In the case of Mr. King and his two daughters, what has befallen Elizabeth will force a reckoning both bitter and sweet.

Matt will be fighting a battle on no less than three fronts. For starters, his marriage had been in disarray for years. His two daughters, Scottie (Amara Miller), 10, and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), 17, are issue-laden, to say the least. And as the deadline for a family land sale he’s in charge of nears, his less wealthy cousins are sharpening their daggers.

Too bad. We like this guy, alleged faults and all, because just maybe we can relate. While it’s not exactly clear how cold or distant he was to Elizabeth, or for that matter how much of an angst-filled wildflower she was, we’re not as quick to judge as some are. Alexandra, spoiled and bratty as she is bright, surely isn’t giving Dad any quarter.

That’s glaringly obvious when Matt and Scottie junket to the island where she’s been relegated to stew and carp at a posh private school. Dragged home ostensibly to play big sister while Dad tries to establish some semblance of order from the unfolding mess, she only rankles nerves more and puts the whole shebang in high relief. Oy, poor Dad.

But if you think it can’t get worse, especially as the camera intermittently focuses on the sleeping beauty all hooked up in the hospital, then you haven’t seen many dramas. Lo and behold, Matt learns a dark secret, a real dilly. OK, it’s a bit operatic. So is life. But the touching manner in which the ethical dilemma is addressed is anything but soapy.

Director Payne, whose equally intelligent “Sideways” (2004) was also character-driven, has a facile way of strewing Hansel-and-Gretel-like crumbs of wit and wisdom along his narrative path. Be it about life, the way someone talks or perhaps an everyday event worth a second thought, the elucidative style cozily enhances the storytelling.

Subtle, never force-fed, a sociocultural survey mirrors Payne’s smart dissection of the kin in question. Agreeing with Tolstoy that happy families are all alike, but that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, the filmmaker is a romantic, an optimist, tipping a hand that he likes this gang, and won’t sully them with clichés like dysfunction.

But gosh, they’ve got a whole lot of baggage to sort. Helping them do so in the form of catalyst/comic relief is Sid (Nick Krause), Alexandra’s slacker pal who comes along for the ride as they embark on a scavenger hunt impelled by the aforementioned divulgence. Apparently, Hawaiian folks with cash jet from island to island without compunction.

And Matt has cash…loads of it. This leads the script to a contemplation on money, the use of it, and how people value it in different ways. Featuring himself a trusted steward of wealth and the natural beauty of his properties, he scoots about in a basic Honda. While I embrace the understated noblesse oblige thing, I think I’d still eke out a Ferrari…red.

Therein lies Matt’s regret. Emanating from humbler stock, Elizabeth wished a more lavish lifestyle, one that included, ironically, her own boat. They were in perpetual disagreement. But happily, there’s no argument here. Heir apparent to at least two Oscar nominations, “The Descendants” is among the year’s best films, low GSLR score or not.

“The Descendants,” rated R, is a Fox Searchlight Pictures release directed by Alexander Payne and stars George Clooney, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller. Running time: 115 minutes

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