The Descendants

3 stars out of five
by S. James Wegg
Publish Date: December 1, 2011
Family anger management

What a pity the artistic trust (director/co-writer Alexander Payne along with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash whose screenplay was based on Kaui Hart Hemming’s novel) couldn’t find a way of making the protagonist’s character more sympathetic. Having neglected the family (wife and two daughters) in favour of earning money he didn’t really need, the consequences are a by-product of that near-criminal lack of devotion. Mom finds a lover, eldest daughter acts up and is “housed” in an institute, youngest daughter tries to emulate the familial role models, ending up with a foul mouth and bullying behaviour.

Mom’s coma then becomes the catalyst for all family members and—eventually—illicit lover to vent their anger at their own shortcomings. By journey’s end, the luckiest of them all is Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) whose boating accident gave her a get-out-of-relationship free card despite the horrific circumstances.

George Clooney does his best as the estranged husband/father Matt King, but even his considerable acting chops can’t make anyone really care to the extent that his woman done him wrong and is now approaching silent death. Au contraire, his “prick” of a father-in-law (rendered with fine gristle by Robert Forster) has much justification in laying the blame for his daughter’s demise at the door of the forced-to-be dad.

The two siblings (Amara Miller as youngest Scottie, Shailene Woodley playing rebel-with-a-secret-cause, Alexandra, with a fine range of emotion) dutifully make their transition from nasty to nice encumbered by stereotypical set-piece “acting outs” (scorning schoolmates, drinking to excess—just like mom …) that feel uncomfortable for all of the wrong reasons. Coming along for the ride as “civil support,” Alex’s boyfriend Sid (gamely portrayed by Nick Krause) tries to add today’s-generation male and balance the Kings but—again—the writers can’t decide if he’s smarter than he lets on or just plain rude. The sequence where Sid literally laughs out loud at an obvious display of the ravages of Alzheimer’s “really blows” whatever credibility had been established thus far.

While the personal tragedy unfolds, the notion of multi-generational inheritance (King’s family trace their roots back to Hawaiian royalty and are in the process of deciding how to liquidate their 25,000 acre holding before the statute of limitations—a.k.a. “perpetual ownership”— dissolves their legal title), eventually works its way into the life-and-death drama through a coincidence that is hard to swallow in the relatively small movers-and-shakers community of the paradise islands.

Once again (cross-reference below), it’s music to the rescue! The largely indigenous score is a pleasure at every bar, infused with all manner of guitars, ukulele, multi-part vocals and a yodeler extraordinaire.

With its poignant subject matter, there won’t be a dry eye in the house at many key moments (don’t miss the philanderer’s deer-in-the-headlights moment: Matthew Lillard serves up the self-serving lecherous role with consummate skill), the real sadness comes from the realization that the source for virtually all family members’ anger issues can be found by looking squarely in the mirror. JWR

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Reader's Forum
January 23, 2012

I so agree with this review. I was starting to think I was the only one who didn't get what all the fuss was about or maybe I have become "movied" out. None of the main characters rang true to me. In the end I thought I had just spent 2 hours watching a boring and not very likeable family deal with a not uncommon family tragedy. My husband thought the story was really a front and we had spent $30 (AU) to see a travel doco put out by Hawaii tourism. Kathy G., Booragul, Australia