The Descendants Review: George Clooney Does Bad Dad With Humbling Grace

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Anyone who has confronted major grief in the passing of a loved one on this planet, pretty much knows that Hollywood in most cases just doesn’t get it, and certainly in no way prepares you for the inevitable of what is to come. And what a strangely comforting surprise it is to encounter Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, which reveals warts and all, just how unimaginably awkward, turbulent and even surreal grieving can be.

Adapted from author Kaui Hart’s novel by the never less than playfully unpredictable Payne (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways), The Descendants stars George Clooney as Hawaiian workaholic lawyer Matt King. He’s the typical absentee dad who barely knows his two glum teen daughters Alexandra and Scottie (Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller), leaving all the rearing in the hands of his equally neglected spouse, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie). Who in turn has taken to compensating for her loneliness with excess booze and danger junkie pastimes.

But when Elizabeth is injured in a water-skiing accident off the coast of Waikiki and ends up in a terminal coma, Matt finds himself burdened with a lot more than the loss of his wife. For starters, he’s suddenly saddled with the unfamiliar and scary role of father. When all along, he has comfortably settled into the far less stressful routine of ‘backup parent and understudy.’

Likewise taunting Matt from the sidelines, are annoying relatives pestering him to sell off their family land to developers offering a hefty amount of cash they look forward to dividing among themselves. And that is actually a vast tract of earth which Matt questions even belongs to them as descendants of the original invaders of Hawaii, or to the native people themselves.

Then there are all manner of shocking family secrets that surface, surrounding his wife’s rather shady double life. Or was it? Since Elizabeth has no choice at the moment, and in fact forever, to shed light on assorted accusations or tell her side of the story, the only alternative for Matt as well as others in this increasingly bizarre when not bitter farce, is to do some frantic investigating of his own around the island. And along with other unfortunates sucked into this tragic scenario, take time out to either reminisce out loud at the bedside of the mute, unconscious Elizabeth, or take turns scolding her.

The Descendants is a richly rewarding, originally conceived, at times even oddly humorous and exquisite, sensitively crafted film. And in which Clooney continues to showcase his creative passion to move beyond movie star vehicles, and venture into risky roles in which his talents shine.

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Rated R

4 stars

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network's Arts Express.