descendantsTangled Web

The Descendants
Stars: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Robert Forster, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Beau Bridges, Nick Krause and Patricia Hastie
Director: Alexander Payne
Scriptwriters: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings
Cinematographer: Phedon Papamichael
Fox Searchlight
Rating: R for language
Running Length: 110 minutes
Director Alexander Payne has a precise mind. He know just when to let the camera linger on his actors and when to shift to scenery, which is handy if you are in Hawaii where this movie is set. I interviewed Payne several years ago and found him to be friendly and easy to talk to. The characters in “The Descendants,” though, are not easy to talk to, with the exception of Scottie, the 10-year old girl who speaks incessantly. Payne also allows kids to flip the bird and there is plenty of use of a certain profane word by young teens. I object to that because it wasn't needed, even though this is an adult film dealing with loss and grief. George Clooney (Matt) shows us a man who has stepped away from his wife and family to concern himself with business. The rest of the cast does well, with names that will be new to the audience, such as Shailene Woodley who plays Clooney’s teenage daughter, Alexandra, and Amara Miller, the younger daughter Scottie, plus Nick Krause who plays Woodley’s laid-back boyfriend, Sid. Patricia Hastie, who plays Clooney’s unconscious wife, Elizabeth, throughout the film, makes an impression, granted the make-up department has something to do with it, but you still know that a person is present and affecting lives.
“The Descendants” story concerns a centuries-old marriage between a Hawaiian princess and an American. Land was given to her at the wedding and this land, plus money from rentals and leases through the years, provided bountifully for the descendants. However, in seven years, this legal inheritance ceases, so now is the time to sell and make a profit---somewhere in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Clooney (Matt) is the executor and has the last say on any sale. The cousins impatiently wait, but in the meantime, Matt’s wife, Elisabeth, has a tragic boating accident and is in a coma. Matt comes to be with the kids who barely know him.  Alexandra is at an expensive school but spends time with boyfriend, Sid. Scottie is obnoxious beyond her years and a handful to discipline. Matt’s father-in-law (a scene-stealing Robert Forster) blames Matt for the accident, even though he wasn't there (“you should have bought her a better boat…”). It is when Alexandra finally tells Matt that Elizabeth was having an affair, that Matt begins to see how his separation from the family has cost them. Instead of driving them apart, though, they begin to search for the man Elizabeth was seeing and this has a bit of humor as they stalk, find and meet the other’s man’s family. All this going on while Elizabeth is on life-support.
There are many characters in this film and each one has a part, from the variety of cousins (Beau Bridges with long hair) to personnel at the hospital to Hawaii, itself, which plays a richly colored character of its own, especially when you see the parcel of land that the descendants own. George Clooney’s character changes from puzzlement to waiting for better news to a slow decline into grief and anger. You can see it on his face. The children show it in other ways from bitter language and holding on to a boyfriend to a child’s pouting. Robert Forster shows grief in a different way, on his current home front with his wife, to his moments with his daughter in the hospital. We are a silent observer to love.
“The Descendants” could have had fewer driving around town scenes, or Scottie acting up or walking on the beach to tell the story. There is Oscar nomination buzz about the actors in this movie. George Clooney is fine as Matt, but he may be competing with himself and his role in "Ides of March." Shailene Woodley, as Alexandra, is also fine in her role, but it is not Oscar-nomination quality, either. Robert Forster, on the other hand, lets you see what a supporting role can do. What I see in “The Descendants” is a movie about regret and that it aptly shows. Tell the people you love---right now---don't wait. 
Copyright 2011 Marie Asner