Matt King is a lawyer who lives in Hawaii, He tries to re-connect with his two daughters after his wife suffers a boating accident.
George Clooney stars in this shambling story about family, parenting and fidelity. As is often the case with this actor, he plays a character at variance with his glossy, man-about-town image. That image sells “Nespresso”, but Clooney is more interested in doing interesting work than rejigging the romantic, leading man roles that made him famous.
In THE DESCENDANTS, he is in unusual territory, playing a man who has been married for many years and is the father of two girls. Matt King is a hard-working lawyer with a practice that brings home the bacon, but not excessively so. His wife and father-in-law consider him a cheapskate, because he is a potentially wealthy man, but won’t use his status to raise more money. The King family live exclusively on the proceeds of the law business. For Matt it is an issue of personal integrity because he controls a multi-million dollar property trust left by his great grandmother to him and all her descendants. He doesn’t want to raise spoiled rich kids.
Raising the kids becomes a more pressing issue for Matt after his wife Elizabeth’s accident. She is in a coma and suddenly the man who thinks of himself as “the back-up parent” is solely responsible for taking care of their children. Ten-year-old Scottie (Miller), has reacted to the absence of her mother by acting out at school and bullying some of her classmates. The oldest child, seventeen-year-old Alexandra is at school on one of the other islands and she reluctantly returns home to help Matt.
Matt begins to see that he doesn’t know his daughters and his marriage is in worse shape than he realised. His entire life is a mess and he has to deal with this emotional wreckage at precisely the same time as having to broker the sale of the inherited land. The sale will make Matt and his cousins actually wealthy, not just on paper. On his best day, Matt is a non-confrontational character who is happy to go with the flow, but now he has to deal with a dozen competing interests at the point where he is feeling more weak and confused than ever.
Clooney has turned 51 and his role in THE DESCENDANTS shows that he understands that his status as a movie star is changing. The “alpha” roles are less varied from this point onward, unless he is happy only playing powerful be-suited finance and political types. Matt King is the opposite of this. Although he has the potential for great wealth, the life he leads will be relatable by most audience members. He is beset by family problems and doubts about his own competence. He is struggling to come to terms with his situation.
Clooney plays King in a solid, non-flashy manner. It is a performance composed of small moments, not big defining speeches. 21-year-old Shailene Woodley, a relative newcomer to movies, but an experienced television actor, does a memorable job of playing Alexandra. Her character has a number of adult issues to deal with very quickly. The rest of the large cast is also up to par with Judy Greer and Robert Forster making a strong impression.
Director Alexander Payne and writers Jim Rash and Nat Faxon have created a world with recognizable characters. We want to spend time with these people. THE DESCENDANTS is not a surprising film. It makes detailed observations about a family under stress. At 115 minutes it takes its own sweet time to unfold, but I was never bored.
THE DESCENDANTS is currently screening in Australian cinemas. I rated it 4/5.