Review: The Descendants

Will Murphy offers his opinions on the Oscar-nominated drama.

the descendants

The Descendants tells the story of Matt King (George Clooney), a Hawaii property lawyer, intent on shattering the myth that the islands are paradise on earth. His wife lies comatose after a boating accident, and he is left with his two precocious daughters, Alex (Shailene Woodley) and the impressionable Scottie, to whom he considers himself ‘the back-up parent’. Meanwhile, he is encouraged to sell off a ‘piece of paradise’ which he has, ‘for some bullsh*t reason’ in his trust.

If you saw ‘About Schmidt’, another of director Alexander Payne’s films, you may remember a perfect balance between comedy and heart-wrenching drama. The same is true of The Descendants, as it carries similar themes of love, loss and family struggles, which are underplayed beautifully by sublime character acting. Sid, the dimwitted yet sensitive acquaintance of Matt’s daughter, is particularly funny.

The family travels to Kauai so that Matt can assess the benefits of his property deal, and is goaded into a deal by a gang of his cousins, led by an abhorrently greedy Beau Bridges. It is here that Matt also inadvertently tracks down his wife's lover, Brian Speer. I had to look it up, but he's played by that guy from ‘Scooby-Doo’. He’s come a long way since then, and gives a performance that’s short but sweet, and significantly impactful. Rob Huebel (I Love You, Man) and Mary Birdsong (Adventureland) are excellent, and because we’re used to seeing them in straight comedy films, they serve that balance between drama and comedy fantastically. Clooney himself rarely shifts his expression from one of mild annoyance and frustration, even in the face of gravely tragic circumstances. This, however, is what pulls his performance to earth with a realistic thud. Nice one, George…

Payne nails the subtleties and dignities that go along with a story like this, and he balances them really nicely with very carefully considered comedy, (a teenager is punched in the face by an old man, a little girl flips the finger to a boating instructor) without overdoing it at either end. It’s no weepie, but it’s no knee-slapper either. It feels like a very real film, with very real characters, with very real personalities, and very real problems.

So should you go and see it? well, If you want to see a film for its aesthetics, then go for it. If you want to laugh out loud for two hours, then maybe its not for you. If you fancy gawping over the stunningly attractive Shailene Woodley (as I’m sure many do) then give it a go.