The Descendants


By Mike Smith

Officer, I’d like to report a crime. In 2004 Alexander Payne gave us the award winning film “Sideways.” I’d like you to arrest whoever made us wait seven years for his next one.

Matt King (Clooney) is a real estate lawyer in Hawaii. He is also the executor of his family’s estate: 25,000 untouched acres of paradise. While sorting through bids for the property Matt’s wife, Elizabeth, is injured in a boating accident. While she lays in a non-reversible coma Matt learns that his wife has been having an affair. Filled with grief over her inevitable death, he must also face the anger he feels because of her betrayal. And he must do this while caring to the needs of his two daughters: 10 year old Scottie (Amara Miller) and wise beyond her years 17 year old Alexandra (Woodley). It’s not a situation I’d wish on anyone.

Adapted from the book of the same name, this is the first film Payne has directed where he didn’t collaborate on the script with Jim Taylor (the two won an Oscar for “Sideways.” Still, writing has always been Payne’s strong suit and his work here with writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (the television film “Adopted”) shines. In voice-over King explains how his ancestors have been quite wealthy but frugal. Quoting his late father he advises that parents should “give their children enough money to do something…but not enough to do nothing.” Still, Matt does well enough to send Alexandra to private school and indulge his wife’s love for racing boats. Learning that Elizabeth was in love with the other man, Matt decides to track him down with the intent of letting him know her condition and allowing him to say his goodbyes. This turn of events could have easily slipped into standard “movie of the week” mode. But thanks to Clooney’s performance, you find yourself agreeing with Matt’s decisions, no matter how awkward they appear. This is one of Clooney’s strongest performances and he may have to clear space on his mantle for Oscar number two. He is at the top of his game in his scenes alone with the comatose Elizabeth. Asking questions that are unable to be answered his pain at his loss and her betrayal is heartbreaking.

As Matt’s young daughters, both Woodley and Miller shine. This is Miller’s first role and she shows that she’s a natural. Supporting work by Nick Krause, Robert Forster and Bridges add to the enjoyment. Throughout the film I kept pointing to a tan, curly haired gentlemen and saying to myself, “that looks like Michael Ontkean.” Guess what? It IS Michael Ontkean. Nice to see him on the big screen again. And yes, he looks good.