Right away in The Descendants, Matt (George Clooney) tells us how annoyed his is that people always assume that just because he lives in Hawaii, everything must feel like a vacation. Matt’s life is anything but paradise right now. He and his cousins have to make a major decision on whether to sell a large piece of untouched Hawaiian land that their family has owned since the 1800s. The whole state is waiting for the outcome, and legally, it rests solely on Matt. On top of that, his wife is in a coma from a boating accident. She is not going to live and Matt has to tell all her friends and family. His 10 and 17 year old daughters, who he’s not especially close with, have their ways of acting out during this family crisis. And to add insult to injury, it turns out his wife was cheating on him.
Surprisingly, with all this drama, the film feels wonderfully light and comical at times. Much of this has to to with the dynamics of the family. The daughters, Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), are hilariously crass and sarcastic with their father at times. It’s their cursing that gives the film an R rating, and while it’s juvenile, it is also wonderfully revealing to how these girls interact socially. And Alex’s friend Sid (Nick Krause) is a riot of the dumb-ass teenager variety.
What runs this film and makes it memorable is Clooney’s portrayal of Matt. When we first meet Matt, he is clueless and always plays it safe. He assumes his wife will be just fine, that what his cousins want with the land is a good idea, that Alex is being responsible at her private school and that Scottie will be better behaved after some ice cream. Best of all, he was completely blind to the fact that his wife was having an affair. His reaction is perfect.
As Matt’s eyes become more aware that everything around him is not as tidy as he thought, it prompts him to be more daring. With his oldest daughter as his main support, he attempts to find the man his wife was having an affair with. What Matt will do if and when he finds him, he has no idea. A lot of fun and tension comes from watching Matt figure this out in the moment.
While the main journey of the film is watching Matt deal with everything that has been dumped on him, he reconnects with his daughters. Matt knows he is “the back-up parent” and toward the beginning of the film, he describes his family as a chain of islands, always together but drifting apart. First saying it, he seems alright with that idea. But to get through losing the matriarch of the family, Matt and the girls have to get closer if they want to stay together. They ways they achieve this are not always sweet, but it is never cheesy. It feels realistic.
Altogether, The Descendants has received five Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Alexander Payne for Best Director and George Clooney for Best Lead Actor.
I would recommend The Descendants to everyone who can stand a little profanity. The drama is mixed with enough comedy to not make it feel daunting, but it never loses that strong pull that comes with tragedy. The cast all works so well together, eventually they become a fun ensemble. And Clooney is rightfully nominated for this role.
“What is it that makes the women in my life destroy themselves?”
If the Academy is looking to award a family drama that stays as mellow as it’s setting, The Descendants will win the Oscar for Best Picture.