We need more directors willing to take risks with films like Get Out.
"The Descendants" has a happy ending. Therefore, technically, it's a comedy. It takes place in the paradise of Hawaii. It stars George Clooney. That may lead you to expect a pleasant good time, but this film is so much more than that. Clooney gives one of his best performances in this film directed and co-written by Alexander Payne, who in "Sideways" (2004) and "About Schmidt" (2002), showed a special affinity for men learning to accept their better feelings.
The state of Hawaii is a co-star. I've been there many times, which only qualifies me as a tourist, but at more than 20 Hawaii Film Festivals, I met so many people and went to so many places that I began to understand how its people feel a love and protectiveness for the land, and how seriously they take its traditions. Much of the story here is about how Matt King (Clooney), a descendant of one of Hawaii's first white land-owning families, must decide whether to open up a vast tract of virgin forest on Kauai to tourist and condo development. At the same time, he faces a personal crisis.
The film opens with his thrill-loving wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) in a boating accident off Waikiki Beach. Matt has been involved in land management; he holds the controlling share of his extended family's estate. Elizabeth has run their own family, raising their daughters: the teenager Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and the younger Scottie (Amara Miller). Now Elizabeth is in a coma, and her living will instructs Matt to remove life support. Alexandra returns home from boarding school, and Matt becomes a single parent while also dealing with the King family's urgent desire to close the multi-million-dollar land deal.
This is big business, emotional and financial. Just because the lawyers wear short-sleeved Reyn Spooner shirts doesn't make them pushovers. Matt's life is further complicated when he discovers from an unexpected source that his wife had been having an affair. And his daughters don't want him to sell the land, where they must often have wandered as children. Leading the push for the King family is Cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges). Hugh, who is as affable as Bridges can be, doesn't want to listen to any woo-hoo nonsense about not selling.