It's a quiet film, achingly real, with George Clooney in a decidedly non-glamorous role. He plays Matt King, a dutiful, somewhat dull lawyer who has been living his life as a descendant of Hawaiian royalty in as low-key a fashion as he can. Like his father before him, he is the trustee (i.e., the guy in charge) of a massive trust that holds a big chunk of Kauai real estate on behalf of a coterie of cousins. Because of the Rule Against Perpetuities (a delightfully archaic rule of law -- this is the second use of the Rule Against Perpetuities in a movie that I am aware of -- it was also a plot point in "Body Heat" back in 1981), the trust needs to be broken up within seven years, and most of King's cousins, including Cousin Hugh, played with sly humor by Beau Bridges, want to sell the property to developers for a huge payday. Matt has a history of going along, and he intends to do that this time, too. But then his thrill-seeker of a wife, Elizabeth, has a bad boating accident, right before Matt is supposed to be announcing what he plans to do with the Kauai property.
As "The Descendants" opens, Elizabeth is in a coma, lying in a hospital bed. Their two daughters, 10-year-old Scottie and wild teen Alexandra, aren't coping very well, and Matt has really never been the principal parent. In the midst of legal hassles about the trust and its attendant real estate, he's hit with the news that Elizabeth will not recover, and then Alexandra spills the beans that her mother was having an affair before she took the fateful boat ride.
The plug needs to be pulled. Elizabeth's friends and family need to know so that they can say goodbye. Matt has to process what he thinks about the fact that his marriage was not only showing cracks but falling apart completely, that his wife may not have loved him anymore, that his daughters are pretty much of a mess. And all of this is incredibly far outside Matt's comfort zone.
Alexander Payne's direction and writing (he co-wrote the screenplay with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, based on the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings) are thoughtful and steady, with the story unspooling at its own pace, giving all of the characters, and especially Clooney's Matt, time to breathe and think and flounder a little. Clooney does a wonderful job tracking the emotional path of this ordinary man just trying to do the best he can while stuck in a black hole of questions with no answers, problems with no solution, wounded feelings, heaps of blame, and unspeakable sorrow. It's hard to watch. But Clooney is really, really good. Honestly, it's the role of his career.
The supporting cast, with Shailene Woodley as his snarly teen daughter, a ferocious Robert Forster as his hard-line father-in-law, Matthew Lillard playing against type as the man Matt's wife was having the affair with, and the always-terrific Judy Greer as a wronged wife, fill in the gaps nicely.
I found myself engaged and compelled by "The Descendants" on two levels, both dealing with the title. First, it works as a movie about parents and children, nature and nurture, as Matt struggles to actually know, understand and guide his willful daughters. Are they irrevocably stuck, because of the parents and upbringing they've had? Could Elizabeth ever have been a happy, comfortable wife or mother, given the parents she had?
But there's something else there, as we see how Matt and his cousins have grown up, so firmly attached to their Hawaiian legacy. Some of the cousins seem scruffy or greedy or eager to get rid of their inherited land, but they're still firmly rooted inside that golden circle of people descended from a Hawaiian princess. There is a palpable sense of belonging, matched with duty and awareness of who and what he comes from, that settles around the shoulders of Clooney's Matt King. I found myself both fascinated by the character and envying him for fitting in, for being born into something that will never go away.
"The Descendants" is playing at several movie theaters around town, including the Carmike Palace Cinema 10 and Starplex Normal Stadium 14. It is nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor (George Clooney), Best Director (Alexander Payne), Best Adapted Screenplay (Payne, Faxon and Rash) and Best Film Editing (Kevin Tent). At this point, the Screenplay category is probably its best shot at Oscar gold. I would probably vote for Clooney over Dujardin, who is charming and wonderful in his own right, but also not creating the complex, revealing character Clooney is.