Film Review: The Descendants

A family tragedy brings a high-powered lawyer closer to his two young daughters in this affecting and often funny comedy-drama featuring a deft star performance by George Clooney.

The premise of The Descendants may sound like the basis for a manipulative TV-movie tearjerker—a successful real-estate attorney reconnecting with his two daughters when his wife falls into a coma after a boating accident—but leave it to director Alexander Payne to take the Sideways route to something much richer and unclassifiable. Adapted by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rush from the acclaimed novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants is more a multi-layered character study with at least as much winning humor as tragic poignancy. And, like Michael Clayton and Up in the Air, it’s another seemingly custom-tailored vehicle for the subtle, understated and intelligent performance style of the magnetic George Clooney.

Clooney’s Matt King is onscreen throughout and narrates to boot, immediately confessing to the audience that he’s been a distant father and less-than-doting husband. His ten-year-old, Scottie (Amara Miller), is a budding eccentric, and his 17-year-old, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), first seen drunk on a beach near her boarding school, has lost all respect for her absentee dad. Matt is clueless about how to communicate with his daughters during this family crisis—until Alexandra rashly informs him that his wife was cheating on him at the time of the accident. Suddenly, Matt has a mission: to hunt down his wife’s lover, ostensibly to help the man find closure before the family pulls the plug on the comatose victim, but mainly to satisfy his curiosity and perhaps find an opportunity for revenge.

Business also beckons: Matt is heir to a vast parcel of undeveloped waterfront land on the island of Kauai, dating back in his mixed-race family to the 1800s, and stands to make a fortune from its sale. Naturally, Matt’s many relatives are eager for the transaction to happen as quickly as possible, while others in the community want the land to remain in its natural state.

For someone so likeable and effortlessly charismatic off the big screen, Clooney has mastered the art of playing the dark side of his charm: ambition, calculation, self-regard sometimes mixed with self-loathing. It’s what makes him a character actor as much as a leading man. As revealed in his narration, Matt is all too aware of the failings beneath his slick and high-powered façade: He’s a “back-up parent, an understudy,” a cuckold, a comic figure stuck in a tragedy. But the loss of his wife and the discovery of her unfaithfulness humanize him and draw him closer to his daughters, particularly Alexandra, who ultimately becomes his most stalwart supporter.

Woodley, star of the ABC Family series “The Secret Life of the American Teenager, is terrific here, adroitly handling Alexandra’s transition from surly rebel to rock-solid ally and her character’s complex relationship with her doomed mother. Providing plenty of comic relief is Nick Krause as her stoner boyfriend Sid, who seems incapable of censoring himself but somehow winds up becoming Matt’s unlikely confidant. Veteran actor Robert Forster is absolutely intimidating in his few scenes as Matt’s volatile father-in-law; Beau Bridges is a welcome addition to the cast as one of Matt’s avaricious cousins; and the appealing Judy Greer (now on “Two and a Half Men”) has several intriguing scenes late in the film as the wife of the man Clooney’s been searching for (played by onetime Scream cutup Matthew Lillard).

Like Payne’s Sideways and About Schmidt, The Descendants has an ambling narrative in which the characters and their complications move the story forward, rather than conforming to a programmatic plot. The pleasures of his films are organic; by the end of The Descendants, you’ll feel you’ve taken a journey along with Clooney’s comically beleaguered Matt King, and you’ll be glad you did.