I'll say it flat out -- Alexander Payne's new film, The Descendants, is my favorite of the year, a movie that manages to be heart-breaking and laugh-out-loud funny at the same time.
Adapted from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemming, The Descendants is about dealing with the past while confronting the present and contemplating the future. It is a story of family disaster and salvation, a mystery wrapped in a tragedy and overlaid with the most human comedy.
It also features one of the best performances of George Clooney's career, a portrayal of sublime depth and simplicity. No mannerisms, no playing on his obvious glamour -- just a character dealing with all manner of pain and confusion without obviously falling apart because, well, he simply has to keep it together.
Clooney plays Matt King, a successful real-estate lawyer on the Big Island of Hawaii and a born-and-bred Hawaiian, though more haole than native. As the film begins, he is dealing with one immediate crisis and one impending one.
The immediate earth-shatterer is the fact that his wife, Elizabeth, has suffered a head injury in a speedboat accident. She is comatose in a hospital and, early on, the doctor tells him that, in fact, she's not going to come back. Plus she has an advance directive in her will, calling for her to be taken off life support so that, as her father (Robert Forster) says to Matt, "she won't just lay there and spoil -- like milk."
Matt's task is to tell his two daughters: Scottie (Amara Walker), 10, and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), who appears to be about 16. He retrieves Alexandra from the boarding school to which she's been sent to help her straighten out from bad grades and casual drug use. Alexandra, however, is not a lot of comfort, harboring resentments that stem from an argument she had with her mother the last time she was home.
What about? As she reveals to Matt, she caught her mother sneaking around with another man, something about which Matt was completely clueless. And suddenly, even as he pulls the plug on his wife and waits for her to die, Matt becomes obsessed with this other man: with finding him, with laying eyes on him, with somehow finding out what it was about this guy that tempted his wife into leaving him.
Not that there aren't clues. Matt himself admits that they had been distant because he spent so much time on his work. He was also, in his own words, stingy; though he has a huge family trust, he makes it a point of pride only to live on the income from his law practice, so as not to spoil his girls. The ultimate ant, working while the world of grasshoppers played around him.
Before he gets the bad news that Elizabeth won't recover, however, he's already mentally vowing to change his ways. Which brings in the impending problem:
Matt's family, descendants of some of the original Anglo settlers of Hawaii who married native Hawaiian royalty, owns a huge parcel of undeveloped land on Kauai, which trust laws are forcing them to sell. The high bid from developers is a half-billion dollars; the low bid isn't much south of that. If Elizabeth will just come out of the coma, Matt promises God, he'll loosen the purse strings, spend money on her and his daughters, stop working and enjoy life.
This review continues on my website.
Follow Marshall Fine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Marshall Fine