The problem with The Descendants is a lack of direction. From the workaholic father (Clooney) to the unruly teenage daughter (Woodley) and her younger, cuter counterpart (Miller), we’ve got a paint-by-numbers American family with a twist.
The twist is that mommy is in a coma. Sometime before film start she smashed her pretty head in a boating accident, so she spends the 115 minute running time a mute totem through which the active characters discover important stuff about themselves. And the truth about mommy.
Clooney plays Matt King, heir to an enormous and colossally undeserved fortune – 25,000 acres of prime Hawaiian real estate. He is the Descendant (get it?) of a line of Hawaiian aristocrats and the sole trustee of the family trust that controls the land. He’s got a large cluster of extended family waiting for him to decide what to do with it as, due to the rule of perpetuity, the trust is set to expire soon – meaning if they don’t sell the acres now, the land defaults back to the government and the family gets nothing.
Now maybe I’m an idiot, but I have No idea why that subplot was in there. Ostensibly this story is about Comamom and the effect of her pre-coma shenanigans on the King family. Clooney discovers things about her that he might never have wanted to know, he and the unruly daughter team up in the face of adversity and intrigue, and as they unravel the secrets of their near-departed mom they both grow up and cop on a bit.
However, this does eventually tie (loosely) into said monkeyshines when we discover that Mrs King had a special friend that Mr King didn’t know about, and said special friend also happens to stand to gain a hefty ransom should Mr King choose to sell his piece of Kauai to one buyer in particular. See: That buyer happens to be the brother-in-law of special friend. Special friend is played by Matthew Lillard.
But special friend wasn’t doing it for the money – in fact, he was risking everything by having his special friendship with Mrs King, since Mr King holds the sole voting right to the sale. On top of that, he wasn’t even really Into Mrs King, he’s just a horny douchebag. So right when the movie came very close to tying itself all together it turns out naw, they was just fucking around.
It’s a good movie. The little daughter is cute and incorrectly funny; the big daughter is a bitch teenager but played very well by Woodley. The family incurs a tagalong, ‘Sid’, the airhead savant friend of big daughter who helps them through it all by being woefully inappropriate and never shutting up. Robert Forster (Heroes’ Arthur Petrelli) plays Comamom’s dad, an unapologetic sexist who walks away to cry.
There’s a Wes Anderson feel to some of the scenes – Clooney breaking from his characteristic stoicism to freak out a little, big daughter crying underwater in a leaf strewn swimming pool, any scene with Sid – and these give the film a little, albeit depressing, character. But though director Alexander Payne has long had it in for contemporary America, offering up dark satires about modern desperation like About Schmidt, Election and Sideways, this is probably his most hopeful film so far.