Everything is oddly laid-back in The Descendants, an adult and somewhat depressing drama set in Hawaii. George Clooney is Matt King, a soon-to-be widower. His wife Elizabeth, who has been in a speedboat accident, lies in a coma; she is not expected to recover. He discovers that she had been having an affair with a callow realtor (Matthew Lillard). He is also the trustee of thousands of acres of pristine Hawaiian land; he is being subtly pressured to sell to a land developer, because his many cousins would like some money. All of this unfolds against glowing island backdrops. At the beginning, Matt complains in narration that heartbreak can and does happen in “paradise,” and indeed it seems almost churlish to give in to despair and anger in such soothing climes.
Matt holds it together, barely. He doesn’t understand his two daughters, especially his 17-year-old, Alex (Shailene Woodley). He tries to be strong for them, to be the father he hasn’t been lately (he’s a busy lawyer). George Clooney has a way here of seeming most authoritative when Matt is at his most baffled and insecure. We never see Matt at ease — we’re tossed into his crisis right at the start — and he’s always roaming around the islands, looking for answers. There’s no enforced conflict in the movie; people talk, working their way through awkward moments. Director-cowriter Alexander Payne, working from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, has left the venom of his past films (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways) far behind. Payne is generous to everyone here, even the realtor, who gets a scene of sad realization that almost single-handedly redeems Matthew Lillard’s past crimes.
The lightness of the surroundings doesn’t exactly mock the heaviness of the emotions; Hawaii just seems like the calmest place in the world to have a nervous breakdown, and it helps if you’re quite well-off and possibly soon to be even better off. On the evidence, Payne is most comfortable among the moneyed, the better to probe the fissures where their public faces meet their wolf-hour preoccupations. There’s a small risk that The Descendants, in the current atmosphere, may be dismissed as a melodrama about the problems of the rich. (Matt may not be in the 1%, but he’s at least in the 10%.) Usually I sympathize with such charges, but the movie has such a delicate touch in moments like Elizabeth’s gruff father (Robert Forster, still great at age 70) speaking gently to his Alzheimer-stricken wife or visiting Elizabeth’s bedside that the universality of grief — we all endure it, those clad in silk and denim alike — is strongly underscored.
Along the way, Matt’s every advantage is turned against him. His money might have saved his wife; less devotion to his job could have saved his marriage. All that land is just a headache, and bringing up two daughters in paradise guarantees no happiness for them. Deservedly, Shailene Woodley, who just turned 20, is about to become a lot better-known. (She currently stars in the ABC Family show The Secret Life of the American Teenager, unwatched by me.) Her Alex is screwed up in some ways, mature beyond her years in others, and Woodley shows us the link between the two. She’s the real soul of the film, which otherwise attends to Matt’s various crises. The Descendants is being marketed, rather misleadingly, as a comedy; the ads are packed with crude humor beats such as the gruff father-in-law decking Alex’s oblivious boyfriend, when in fact the punch emerges from genuine rage, the emotion Matt never quite allows himself.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth lies unresponsive in her bed, growing more gaunt with each scene, provoking sorrow and anger in roughly equal measure; the film tries to outdo Last Tango in Paris with not one but two bitter one-sided deathbed confrontations. (The second is probably unnecessary but gives Judy Greer, as the realtor’s wife, some good material for her highlight reel.) Ultimately, the film is about how everyone resolves his or her feelings about this insensate body wasting away in paradise — sort of like a shotgun marriage between Jimmy Buffett and Harry Chapin.