Clooney plays Matt King, a wealthy lawyer descended from Hawaiian royalty. Matt's wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) has been comatose since a boating accident. Just as Matt learns that the coma is irreversible, he's also hit with the news that Elizabeth had been having an affair with a local realtor (Matthew Lillard).
As Matt struggles to reconnect with his troubled daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), he's also faced with a decision about selling land which has been in his family for generations.
This is a rich film with a lot of layers to consider and analyze, starting with the meaning of the title. Along the way there are many interesting things to observe and consider; for instance, I was struck that Elizabeth was consistently described as "strong." There was a sense that that was the nicest thing some people could say about her, and as the audience gets to see her cantankerous father (Robert Forster) in action, one also has the sense the apple didn't fall far from the tree. Yet it's clear that she also had at least one devoted friend (played by Mary Birdsong).
Elizabeth is a significant presence in the film, though she's never seen speaking; figuring out who she was is one of the things which makes the film interesting. As it turns out, Matt is trying to figure out who she was along with the audience, as he comes to terms with startling information about her behavior.
Elizabeth clearly made some poor life choices, most significantly, it seems, not being a particularly engaged parent; as the film begins, the children aren't a credit to either of their parents. One of the things which makes the film rewarding is watching Matt realize he needs to make changes in his life and then seeing him follow through, especially in his relationships with his daughters. The film's last shot is believably warm and hopeful.
Although the film deals with the death of a wife and mother, it's not maudlin or tear-jerking. I found myself interested yet emotionally distant; I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing, but that distance made it easier to watch. Some of this reaction may also be because, while the characters have had their world rocked, the reactions wash over them in phases; they have moments where they break down in tears, but often they're simply numb or trying to keep on going as normally as possible, in a matter-of-fact way. There's also considerable humor found in unexpected moments. All of this feels very real, and it's frankly easier for an audience to watch than if it were an out-and-out tear-jerker, though the film does have its moments of pathos.
I've been mulling over whether THE DESCENDANTS is a movie I'll want to see again. While I'll definitely be watching Clooney's very entertaining THE IDES OF MARCH (2011) again, THE DESCENDANTS is perhaps less "entertainment" and more about accompanying the characters on a difficult though rewarding journey. It will be interesting to see, as time goes on, whether the film's many strong points induce me to relive that journey.
One of the things I especially liked about the film was its somewhat unusual-for-film depiction of "everyday" Hawaii. (SOUL SURFER, released earlier this year, also depicted life in Hawaii, although it was more scenic.) We see the freeways, office buildings, middle-class homes, and a pool badly in need of cleaning. Much of the time the atmosphere is damp and overcast. Combined with the Hawaiian music permeating the soundtrack, it gave the film an authentic feel and made it visually interesting.
I did feel that this 115-minute film was five or ten minutes too long. The sequence I think I might have been tempted to excise was the unlikely hospital visit of Julie (Judy Greer), the wife of the man with whom Elizabeth had the affair. It was the rare moment in the film where I didn't completely believe in a character and what was happening.
There are a couple of interesting faces among Matt's many cousins. Cousin Hugh, who is something of a character, is played by Beau Bridges. I was trying to figure out where I'd seen Cousin Milo before, then realized during the end credits that it was Michael Ontkean of the '70s TV series THE ROOKIES.
THE DESCENDANTS was directed and co-written by Alexander Payne. It's based on a novel by Kauai Hart Hemmings.
Parental advisory: THE DESCENDANTS is rated R for language, including sexual references. Children would be unlikely to enjoy the film's mature themes, in any event.
For more on this film, Leonard Maltin, Betsy Sharkey of the Los Angeles Times, and Lou Lumenick of the New York Post are among those who have given the film their strong endorsement.