Some movies aim to distract us; others seek to help us understand. “The Descendants” tackles some of the prickliest issues a contempo family can face — coping with a loved one’s right-to-die decision — with such sensitivity that it’s hardly noticeable you’re being enlightened while entertained. As a Hawaiian father of two negotiating complex emotions while his wife lies comatose after a boating accident, George Clooney reveals yet another layer of himself. His involvement, plus the welcome return of “Sideways” director Alexander Payne, will bring in auds; their tell-a-friend enthusiasm should spell sleeper success among catharsis-seeking adults.
With its tropical vistas and near-perfect weather, Hawaii makes an unexpected backdrop for such a story, a mismatch that island native Matt King (Clooney) acknowledges in his opening voiceover. “Paradise can go fuck itself,” he says, the line betraying the anger he feels in the face of his wife’s 23-day coma. It isn’t a typical movie-star role; movie stars seldom play helpless. And yet Clooney has always kept his character-actor instincts close, which enable him to disappear into a well-written, soul-baring part like this with little vanity or baggage.
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Here, he plays a dad who’s never had to practice that role. Husband, check. Provider, check. But Matt was always the “backup parent” to his more adventure-seeking wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie, seen waterskiing in the opening shot, then bedridden for the remainder of the film), and the thought of having to raise his 10- and 17-year-old daughters solo terrifies him. The accident comes at a particularly difficult time, as Matt holds a majority stake in the family trust: 25,000 acres of unspoiled land on Kauai that his relatives are pushing him to sell.
To some extent, Matt is overshadowed by a decision he doesn’t want to make (the fate of real estate he doesn’t necessarily feel entitled to) and forced to deal with one that’s already been made for him (his wife’s will stipulates she doesn’t want to live in a vegetative state). Through it all, his focus remains on his children. Younger daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) is starting to act out, while teenage Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) has become such a handful she’s been shipped off to boarding school.
Woodley, best known for her work on ABC Family’s soapy “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” is a revelation in the role of Alex, displaying both the edge and depth the role demands. At face value, she appears to be going through a rebellious phase, but as the story unfolds, she proves to be the strong one, wiser than she appears and potentially better equipped to deal with the tragedy at hand.
The inescapable heaviness of the subject aside, “The Descendants” never descends to griefsploitation, as Payne and fellow screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash carefully select moments that reveal the characters’ ever-changing emotions without wallowing in their pain. Nearly every detail sources directly back to Kaui Hart Hemmings’ sensitively crafted novel, and yet, Payne’s triumph is in striking the right tone — and knowing what to leave unsaid. The near-paradisiacal setting is hardly the only irony in this scenario; there’s also an unexpected amount of humor to be found in the circumstances immediately surrounding a loved one’s death, and the director embraces both contradictions with due respect.
Though Payne undoubtedly ranks among the leading portraitists of American cinema, his earlier films display a semi-condescending, even judgmental attitude toward his characters. Here, the individuals are every bit as flawed, and yet the tone is refreshingly open-minded, allowing observant auds to draw their own conclusions. Take Alex’s friend Sid (Nick Krause), an overgrown puppy of a kid one might be tempted to dismiss as a dim-witted pothead on first encounter. Indeed, the film milks a few laughs at his gape-mouthed expense early on, and yet later scenes reveal that Alex was smart in her choice of companions.
“The Descendants” deals in themes universal enough that audiences will come to the table with their own life experience to draw from, and Payne intuitively understands how to leave things open enough that we can personalize the story for ourselves. With the exception of Clooney, none of his casting choices seem obvious, which further brings the world to life. The entire ensemble treads the tricky line between comedy and tragedy with aplomb, from Robert Forster (as Matt’s surly father-in-law) to Beau Bridges (playing a cousin counting on the land deal going through), extending even to smaller turns from Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer.
“The Descendants” is one of those satisfying, emotionally rich films that works on multiple levels. Some will call their travel agents to book Hawaiian vacations as soon as they dry their eyes (just as “Sideways” boosted wine-tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley), while more cynical auds should find layers to engage their sensibilities as well. Of particular interest is the way Payne allows class and race to supply an interesting, albeit subtle, subtext. There’s a melancholy sense of something passing, linked to Hawaii itself through the stunning mix of widescreen vistas and native music, as well as the assurance of life’s essentials being preserved in the film’s perfectly executed final shot.