THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
George Clooney and Shailene Woodley go in search of the Other Man in The Descendants.
The Descendants is the story of a man who figures out what kind of husband he wants to be, but only after tragedy strikes, and by then it's too late. George Clooney plays Matt King, a husband and father living on one of the Hawaiian islands. His wife Elizabeth lies in a coma following a boating accident. The weeks spent at her hospital bedside have given Matt time to focus on his regrets. Maybe he shouldn't have devoted so much time to organizing the sale of a sizable piece of real estate he and his cousins have inherited. Maybe he should have let Elizabeth spend some of the family fortune that he has studiously invested. Maybe he should have let her buy jewelry, go on trips, and perhaps even get a boat of her own. She wanted all those things. He refused to provide them.
When the doctor informs him that Elizabeth will never come out of the coma, Matt knows he must go around and tell all their relatives and loved ones. That's difficult enough. He also has to contend with two daughters he scarcely understands how to connect with: adolescent Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) has a rebellious attitude, and grade schooler Scottie (Amara Miller) seems intent on mimicking her older sibling's behavior. One day, in the heat of a dispute, Alex drops the bombshell that Elizabeth was cheating on Matt. He's devastated, and decides to track down the other man, a real estate agent named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). Alex and Scottie insist on going with him. Alex also drags her dim-bulb boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) along for moral support. The journey helps Matt realize that, while it may be too late to be an attentive husband, it's not too late to be an attentive dad.
One of the great joys of The Descendants is that it doesn't go where you expect it to. The film sets up a number of scenarios which, on the surface, seem predictable, but then unfold in ways you don't anticipate. For example, Matt's reasons for wanting to come face-to-face with Brian are not merely to confront; they have something to do with wanting to find his own acceptance of his wife. The roles of Matt's judgmental father-in-law, Scott (Robert Forster), and Brian's wife, Julie (Judy Greer), come at you from the sides as well. Scott is not simply a jerk, nor is Julie a hapless, suffering spouse. Matt and his kids grow close in interesting ways, too. There are no big speeches or major epiphanies, just a series of truthful moments that show how individuals sometimes bond even when they aren't paying attention.
Director/co-writer Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways) works from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. I didn't read the book, but if Payne has been faithful to the author's themes, it's probably well worth checking out. The Descendants finds a unique way of exploring Matt's situation by tying it into the subplot about his family's land. Matt is very aware of the fact that many things some tangible, others not have been passed down through the generations. He is at a crossroads. It's time for him to pass something down to his own children, and he must do it during a time of crisis, sadness, and regret. You feel the weight of that at every moment, which gives The Descendants an amazing power. When watching a great film, I sometimes feel impatient for it to be over not because I'm tired of watching it (which is never true) but because I am so eager to see where the story takes me. That's how I felt here. I wanted to know whether Matt would find a way to heal himself and guide his daughters through an unimaginable situation.
This is such a different role for George Clooney. In most of his films, he plays characters who are, at some level, in control. Or, if they aren't in control, they know what to do about it. Matt King, on the other hand, is fumbling through life, insecure and confused. His marriage was not what he thought it was, so he has to come to terms with that. He doesn't know how to manage his kids, so he has to rely on his immediate instincts and hope they're good enough. It's a complicated role that Clooney absolutely aces. The actor shows a heretofore unseen vulnerability that's captivating. In the last few minutes of the movie, Matt has a private moment with his wife's comatose body that is both devastating and eloquent in its simple truthfulness. It may well be Clooney's finest work ever.
The other standout is Shailene Woodley, who may be known to some viewers for her role on the TV show The Secret Life of the American Teenager. She never hits a false note as Alex. Playing a teen with a chip on her shoulder offers many opportunities for caricature and/or overacting. Woodley always feels like a real adolescent, with real problems, and a real attitude that is borne from that. It is a magnificent performance that perfectly compliments Clooney's.
The Descendants took me through so many emotions. It's smart, funny, heartbreaking, heartwarming, wise, and, despite some sad moments, genuinely optimistic. I experienced more feelings watching it than I usually get from ten movies. The film ends with a static shot held for several minutes that feels just right. It lets us know where the King family goes from here. I love all kinds of movies, but my absolute favorites are the ones that combine comedy and drama into something that feels like real life. The Descendants is one of the best examples I've seen in years.
( out of four)
The Descendants is rated R for language including some sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes.
Buy a copy of my book, "Straight-Up Blatant: Musings From The Aisle Seat," on sale now at Lulu.com!