The Descendants

Payne Time in Waikiki


15 November 2011| No Comments on The Descendants     by Sean Chavel


Outstanding comedy-drama even for George Clooney standards. The Descendants opens with a tragedy, with Hawaiian real estate businessman Matt King (Clooney) learning of his wife’s boating accident, placing her in an indefinite coma with no prospective rehabilitation in sight. He admits that he has been the understudy parent since the kids were three years old. Now he has ten and seventeen year old daughters to share his grief with and raise, only that his older daughter has tough news to share with him: Mom was having an affair. The daughters both have fiery tempers, but this isn’t a dramatic exhibition of let’s-hate-dad. They love dad, and know that he has some sensible wisdom when it comes to forgiving mom’s defects in character. Remarkably, Alexander Payne’s (“Sideways”) masterpiece, adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel, finds grace and humor in an imperfect world that doesn’t always fulfill our promises but challenges us to rise to better common hood.

Our betrayed and flushed hero King breaks the news to family and friends bravely. And as his father-in-law (Robert Forster) rebukes him with a heavy bombardment of insults that his Elizabeth was a faithful and loving woman, King remains tight-lipped to the onslaught. He takes the pain and embarrassment with heaps of grace, the kind of grace that George Clooney is so masculine in embodying. Imagine worms like David Spade or Danny McBride going tit-to-tat with the father-in-law, making the situation uglier than necessary (then that would be crass comedy, not an Alexander Payne film). To see Clooney exemplify grace with this role is an ennobling act of observance.

Erstwhile in the heartbreak, King is on the eve of selling a huge chunk of land that will make his extended family worth millions. And yet it will be carved up into roadways, parking lots, tract housing, golf courses, and other spoilage. Coverage in the news media informs all islanders that it will increase traffic congestion. King has never splurged in his life, but after this, he can live comfortably. And drink-happy cousins (Beau Bridges, included) are restless to cash in on the promised riches.

With permission from his own daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), King will track down his wife’s lover, a real estate agent and real douchebag named Brian Speer (Matthew Lilliard, thick-skulled). Two expectations can be had: their callused showdown can turn into a brawl or it can be a shakedown via wit and ridicule. What kind of film do you think this is? With Payne you hopefully don’t know, but it’s kind of strategic for King to have his daughter off to the side as a lookout. But as it would turn out, Speer is involved in the 25,000 acres of land that King will be unloading.

The rest of the cast is irreplaceably superb. Judy Greer is the adulterer’s wife, an obedient homemaker whose understanding of the complexities of the situation might be in short supply. Nick Krause is Sid, a teen en route to becoming a grade-A Neanderthal, making Keanu Reeves sound sophisticated as Aristotle in comparison. Amara Miller is the second younger daughter, and unlike other glib preteens in the movies, she knows how to sound-off her opinions. They are among the film’s rich hierarchy.

The film concludes with a number of well-composed and touching reconciliations. Clooney is just as fine as ever, and as dignified, in the closing scenes. But he’s equally fine, if not surprising, in the film’s earliest scenes. “The Descendants” is a film that I found to be completely absorbing, I could not mettle in unrelated thoughts not pertaining to what I was looking at straight-ahead on the screen. I haven’t had similar experiences to Matt King in my life, but I felt as though I was amongst his family.

115 Minutes. Rated R.


Film Cousins: “Terms of Endearment” (1983); “Enemies: A Love Story” (1988), “Marvin’s Room” (1996), “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002), “About Schmidt” (2002).

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Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.


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