Life can be a long, pointless walk through normality. In the bleakest of terms, we go to school, get a job, go to work and eventually, like cattle being herded from one platform to another, die. It really doesn’t matter who we are or how much money we have in our wallets, because at some unfortunate point, we all get smacked across the face with the sudden realization that there’s absolutely nothing to be done about it.
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Most movies try to bank on this notion of insignificance by offering an escape from it, depicting the lives of extraordinary individuals who rise above the confines of regularity. But “The Descendants,” the latest directorial effort by Alexander Payne (“Sideways”), isn’t like most movies. It’s a tender tale of mourning and melancholy, touched with moments of hilarity that bring to life the ironic imperfections of human existence. The most surprising detail? Every single character onscreen is absolutely and unapologetically normal — they’re the kind of people who could be our next-door neighbors.
George Clooney (“Up in the Air”) plays Matt King, a workaholic lawyer who happens to be one of the last surviving descendants of Kamehameha I, the first king of a united Hawaii. Part of the trust fund he and his cousins have inherited is a large tract of undeveloped “virgin” Hawaiian land, the last of its kind. With said trust fund about to dissolve, Matt and his cousins decide to cash in their chips and sell off the land, a venture that would make all of them extremely rich and irrevocably change Hawaii’s real estate climate.
As the details of the sale are ironed out, Matt’s wife Elizabeth (newcomer Patricia Hastie) is involved in a boating accident that puts her in a coma and forces him, for the first time in seven years, to care for his rebellious daughters. The oldest, 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, TV’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager”) soon reveals that she caught Elizabeth with another man before the accident.
Matt — struggling to maintain a measure of authority — finds himself at a crossroads, unsure of where to turn. Is he going to keep supporting the wife he thought he knew for close to 20 years, or will she always be that unfaithful woman who intended on demanding a divorce and jumping ship?
The movie, like the other films Payne has written and directed, stands out because there’s no discernible plotline. The main character is just a regular guy — even if he lives in America’s paradise land — facing all the crap that life offers. The keen sense of honesty in the script and direction enliven Payne’s ability to highlight the little character details he puts onscreen.
Seemingly unnecessary minutiae, like the way Matt deals with a bitter father-in-law (Robert Forster, “Middle Men”) and his daughter’s idiotic friend (newcomer Nick Krause), give the character room to breathe, allowing the audience to see him when he’s not exposed by his grief.
Clooney excels in using the freedom he’s given with a character as multifaceted as Matt. There are moments in the movie, just seconds after Matt stops himself from breaking down, that serve as a constant reminder of how completely Clooney understands the personality he’s been asked to embody and how that personality fits into this movie’s voice.
Shit hits the fan. There’s nothing much Matt can do to clean it up, but he faces it in the same way any one of us would, and he becomes a better man for it. It would be too simple to just break down and turn your back. Matt’s unwillingness to do so reminds us why.