In “The Descendants,” Matt King (George Clooney) seems to be living in a fantasy. His family trust actually owns 25,000 immaculately preserved acres on Kauai, one of the fringe benefits of being descended from Hawaiian royalty. Unfortunately, the Kings won’t be able to hold on to that land for much longer because of a law that’s forcing Matt to decide what to do with the property.
Given his circumstances that may be one of the easier decisions Matt will have to make. His sports-loving daredevil of a wife, Elizabeth, is on life-support after a boating accident, and the prognosis is grim. His 17-year-old daughter, Alex — superbly played by Shailene Woodley — is a tough-talking problem child who fools around with older men, dabbles in drugs, drinks too much and thinks too little. Matt isn’t sure he’s fatherly enough to handle Alex’s bad behavior, nor is he certain he’s up to the challenge of breaking the news to his 10-year-old daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), that her mom probably won’t be coming out of that coma.
Based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel, “The Descendants” takes potentially mundane family drama and turns it into something offbeat, touching and — quite often — unexpectedly humorous.
That’s not completely surprising, however, since the movie was directed by Alexander Payne, a filmmaker who is noted for telling seemingly simple stories in unusual ways. Payne’s other films include the Reese Witherspoon/Matthew Broderick black comedy “Election,” Jack Nicholson’s “About Schmidt” and “Sideways,” starring Paul Giamatti.
“The Descendants” is Payne’s first time back in the director’s chair since “Sideways,” and he is still at the top of his game. The screenplay that he co-wrote with Jim Rash and Nat Faxon is smart, funny and absorbing, and once again Payne shows he has a gift for bringing out the best in his actors.
At this point, we expect Clooney to deliver the goods, and he does. His well-nuanced performance shows Matt’s determination to be in control and the increasingly hard to repress insecurities and old self-recriminations that are threatening to bring him down.
Equally impressive is Woodley, who turns a risky role into a triumph. Although Alex initially seems like a big-mouthed brat, just like her father, she has a more complex personality beneath the surface.
Payne also gets top-notch supporting work from Nick Krause as Alex’s tagalong friend Sid, a stoner who’s not as stupid as Matt assumes he is, and Judy Greer in a small but striking part as a woman whose marriage is jeopardized by a secret Matt and Alex have discovered. One of the biggest surprises in “The Descendants” comes when Matt realizes the two most pressing issues in his life are beginning to fit together in a rather shocking way.
At the center of the movie is the idea that most things are not exactly what they appear to be. “In Hawaii, some of the most powerful people look like bums and stuntmen,” Matt tells us early on.
In “The Descendants,” Payne’s message is that sometimes people don’t get what they’re entitled to; they may wind up with more than they deserve or, in Matt’s case, more than they think they can handle.
Opens Friday at Celebration Cinema, 200 E. Edgewood Blvd., Lansing. (517) 393-7469. celebrationcinema.com