It's often said that if you don't like the weather in Hawai'i just wait ten minutes. What's more true of Alexander Payne's The Descendants is if you don't like the mood of the film just wait a scene. That's not to say that the film's transitions aren't enjoyed--because they are, immensely. Payne's previous effort, Sideways, was famed for within seconds flipping from heartbreaking to hilarity.
Hawai'i, the name alone conjures magical memories and images for most. Sandy beaches that spread as far as the eye can see, skirted dancers and pigs on a roast. What could be better than this paradise? To hear Matt King tell it, "Paradise can go fuck itself". Tourists never had to deal with the condescending parents of their children's friends. Paradise never had to deal with a wife in a coma.
Matt was the backup parent, now he is thrust into the duty of raising his daughters. His wife handled Alexandra and Scottie, in fact, she handled everything at home. He is the steward of an estate that could potentially make all of his cousins and extended relatives flush with cash, or release every pristine bit of the 25,000 acre beach back to Hawai'i. In the midst of this decision, he also has to also notify his family and friends of his wife's condition.
While Clooney's other role this year was about defending America's interest at the White House, Matt is trying to keep what is near and dear to him, his family, protected. His wife cannot offer him any solace for her trespasses in the state she is in. Her father is as most father-in-laws are--ornery. This task proves to be just as arduous as any other business transaction. And the scenes where Matt is confiding in and collaborating with Alexandra (welcome to the show Shailene Woodley) are some of the most entertaining of the film.
At the end of the day family is not who we are related to, but who we choose to spend time with. Eating ice cream on a couch with, arguing over what to watch on a Wednesday evening, who we keep close when the days become harder to bear. And with any luck Matt will discover what that means.
What makes one most appreciative of The Descendants is that Alexander Payne never takes any easy outs. No one is ever fully to blame, no one is as simple as they appear (even Sid), no one is that clear-cut. Greys are always the work of master artists and we have one here in Alexander Payne.
***1/2 out of ****