Like many of Payne’s films, The Descendants is casually paced and populated with well drawn characters who are maybe just a little cartoonish. George Clooney takes center stage, but there are half a dozen characters you might latch onto more tightly than Matt.
Matt King’s wife Liz (Patricia Hastie, with only one brief scene outside of a coma) did all the work of raising the children and running their home. But Liz was injured badly in a boating accident, and now she’s in a coma in the hospital. Before too long, Matt (George Clooney) gets word that she’s not likely to recover. Suddenly he is promoted to CEO of the family, raising his youngest daughter Scotty (Amara Miller), marshaling the friends and family, while trying to continue running his business and financial affairs.
His business and financial life is dominated by a family plot. The King family must dispose of a piece of undeveloped property on Kaua’i. Matt is in charge of the trust that owns the land, and the clock is ticking. They have to find a buyer soon.
That land trust gives the movie its sharp title. A “descendant” is defined not by any personal accomplishment or trait, but by an accident of birth — not unlike a king — and the King family are well off thanks to their ancestors.
Matt’s family may sell to resort developers instead of a coalition of native Hawiians, and that makes them extremely unpopular in the local press. That choice between evil and good is a minor annoyance in the otherwise human-sized screenplay, and luckily Payne doesn’t belabor it. The title seems to say that any good fortune Matt’s family have is unearned, and the land deal warns that any bad fortune they suffer is karmic accounting.
Matt goes to fetch his oldest daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) from boarding school on another island. The night he shows up to take her home, she is out after curfew, smoking with a friend, and that makes Matt angry. Back at home, father and daughter continue butting heads until she tells him that mom was having an affair.
The power between father and daughter shifts as dad runs down the block to ask his wife’s best friends about it. After that Matt can no longer even pretend to be the CEO of their family. He genuinely needs everyone’s help, especially Alexandra’s.
Driven now by his obsession with his wife’s affair, Matt seeks out the man she was sleeping with. Alexandra insists on helping, and on bringing along her new boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) whose cluelessness makes him the Paynian comic relief. (And don’t be surprised if later he turns out to have some value beyond the movie’s laugh lines.)
Clooney is one of the biggest stars in the world, and his character is a one-percenter — a wealthy man from a wealthy family with none of the financial problems any average member of the audience might be facing. And yet because Clooney is so charismatic and because Payne does “sad sack” so well, you’ll be rooting for Matt King from start to finish. When I stop to think about that, I find it amazing.
I also found myself relating to or rooting for just about everybody in the cast. Maybe coping with a terminally ill friend makes everyone behave better. I think it’s more likely that Payne, the screenwriters, and Kaui Hart Hemmings who wrote the novel (and plays Matt’s secretary), realized that life has enough drama without villains and contrived conflicts.