The Descendants is a film that should not work. From the outset, the audience is told that rich people have feelings too. That pain felt is pain felt. In addition, it takes place in Hawaii and yes, we’re then told that people who live in paradise have the same hardships as everyone else. While this is obviously true, the fact that the director felt the need to make explaining this the first order of business is essentially acknowledging the inherent problems with film. Making an audience care about rich people is a tall order. Misery set against the backdrop of such overwhelming geographical beauty is even taller.
In the hands of lesser filmmakers this film should have crumbled under the weight of its own pretentiousness. The film is directed by Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Sideways), who is no stranger to toeing that thin line between drama and melodrama, between comedy and farce. He hasn’t always produced the best results but he seems comfortable pushing the tone of his films in one direction or another, trying to create a delicate balance between laughter and tears. That task is made a lot easier when you have a big goddamn ace in the hole: George Clooney.
Clooney plays Matt King. To say Matt has a lot on his plate would be an understatement. He’s a husband, father and a practicing attorney. He is also the sole heir of his family’s very large estate and decision needs to made in regards to large parcel of land he is responsible for. In addition to that, his wife is currently on life support having suffered a devastating injury in a boat accident. The situation is further complicated when his eldest daughter confides to her Dad that his wife was having an affair.
The film plays out like a high wire act on the shoulders of Clooney’s performance. In a career full of winning, charismatic characters, this is his most fully realized portrayal to date. He effortlessly and in the end triumphantly travails the emotional minefields of this movie, taking it perilously close to edge of an all out disaster, but never going over it. In the end, the film is about the messiness of life. The sheer unpredictability of it. In hindsight, I suppose it makes sense that the film is a bit sloppy. In a film that’s about life itself, what’s the point of making it neat?