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In The Descendants, George Clooney is rumpled. He wears Hawaiian shirts; even his hair seems grayer than usual. In other words, you don’t really question it when his character, an attorney named Matt King, finds out that he’s a cuckhold. (Cheat on George Clooney? Never!) You’d think Matt would be angry enough, in a manner of speaking, to kill his wife. But thanks to a boating accident, she’s already in a coma and may never awaken.
That’s the gist of writer-director Alexander Payne’s fifth film (co-written by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash and adapted from a Kaui Hart Hemmings novel), and like his previous hits About Schmidt and Sideways, it’s bittersweet and not always easy to watch. Its pace is as leisurely as a day in its Hawaiian setting, which makes the lovely parts lovelier but its angsty moments even more torturous and uncomfortable.
And there are plenty of those: Matt’s the father of two teen girls but is admittedly the “understudy” parent. He didn’t have much to do with them until their mother’s accident, and now he has to learn to be their dad while guiding them through the roughest of times. It’s his older daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, simultaneously fresh-faced and poised), who reveals her mother’s affair. They’re both pissed, yet mournful (this is a Payne film, after all). Meanwhile, 13-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) is kept oblivious to the affair as well as the severity of mom’s condition.
Matt’s obsession with finding his wife’s lover comprises the bulk of The Descendants, along with a subplot involving an expansive lot of untouched land that he and his cousins have inherited and are about to sell. (To whom is a source of contention.) There’s some comedy here, coming mostly from Alexandra’s dopey, mouth-breathing boyfriend (Nick Krause) and Matt’s exceedingly awkward attempt to meet the man he already loathes.
Underscoring it all, however, is the agony of watching a loved one die slowly; Clooney makes it look easy while pedaling from anger to bitterness to grief and back again. (Judy Greer, in a small, serious role, also has a devastating scene.) Despite the extreme circumstances, there’s no sense of contrivance here—it’s likely, in fact, that you’ll leave the theater musing about what you’d do in similar circumstances. And you get the feeling Payne, ever the realist, would regard that as high praise indeed. —Tricia Olszewski