Matt King sits across from his teenage daughter, Alex. He’s brought her home from an expensive boarding school to tell her the bad news: her mother, Elizabeth, Matt’s wife, is unlikely to recover from a coma brought on by a boating accident. They need to make plans, inform family and friends that the plug is about to be pulled. And whatever they do, they cannot, at least not just yet, tell Alex’s younger sister, Scottie, who is presently in trouble at school for cursing and bullying the other kids. Alex resists this new information and drops a bombshell of her own: Matt’s wife had been cheating on him.
Welcome to Hawaii, the land of paradise.
This scene, which comes early in Alexander Payne‘s The Descendants, is one of several moments in the film where bitter truths are spoken. If it isn’t enough that Matt has found himself in the position of caring for two daughters about whom he knows nothing, he must now deal with the infidelity. And there’s another rub: Matt and his dozen or so do-nothing cousins are the descendants of King Kamehameha. They own two-hundred-thousand acres of pristine valley on Kauai, for which Matt is the sole trustee. Most of the cousins have decided to sell to a wealthy developer who wants to convert the land into a resort. Matt will be required to sign on the dotted line.
George Clooney, in one of his best performances, dials down the volume as Matt, handling the information overload with almost weary resignation. His hair is a little too grey, his eyes sad and darkly-circled. When he speaks, it’s almost as an afterthought, considering the dominant personalities that surround him. He’s willing to deal, except on the subject of cheating. He demands answers from family friends who were much closer to Elizabeth. He is told, reluctantly, and only after he explains with cruel frustration that Elizabeth is going to die, that the man’s name is Brian Speer.
Armed with knowledge and anger, Matt embarks with Alex on a journey to find Brian that will lead all of them to truths more painful than any of them could have anticipated. Alex’s possible boyfriend, Sid, with his shaggy hair and unfortunate knack for speaking when he shouldn’t, tags along despite Matt’s protestations; he doesn’t much like the kid. Along the way, they visit Elizabeth’s parents. Her father, played wonderfully by Robert Forster, is bitter for his own reasons, and doesn’t hesitate to let Matt know he wasn’t good enough for his daughter. There is cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), who does his best to be sympathetic to Matt’s situation, but makes it clear that the sale of the land is all business. Tied up in all of this is Brian Speer, whose involvement in both the family tragedy and the land deal becomes a sticky point made even stickier by his wife, Julie. Matthew Lillard seems an unlikely choice to play the adulterer, but here he is effective as a man who truly loves two very different women and understands the precarious nature of his situation better than anyone. And then there’s Sid, who proves in a painfully honest moment late in the film that sometimes surfaces need only be scratched.
Alexander Payne’s previous film, Sideways, with its great performance by Paul Giamatti as a loathsome wine connoisseur, was good but left me oddly detached. Here, Payne drew me in, wisely sidestepping sentimentality in a concept ripe for it, in exchange for a series of small moments. It’s a subtle approach, going not for scenes of great tear-jerking, but gradual steps of revelation as Matt does his best to hold his hands on the kite string. Shailene Woodley, as Alex, is only twenty but delivers a performance far more mature and nuanced than her years would suggest. The moment when Alex reveals the affair is strangely powerful because of Woodley’s commitment; she takes what could have the bitter archetypal teenager and turns her into something special. And little Amara Miller may well be on her way to a career of devious scene-stealing. Her Scottie is a great brick wall of defiance, flipping the bird to those who deserve it and dancing just this side of irreverence.