The Descendants (2011)

Who would ever want to cheat on Clooney?

Matt King (George Clooney), the trustee of his family’s ancestral land in Hawaii, tries to reconnect with his two daughters after his wife suffers a serious boating accident and falls into a coma.Under pressure from different factions to sell the land, he belatedly learns a disturbing secret about his wife.

Director and writer Alexander Payne hasn’t been around since 2004 with ‘Sideways’ and it took him awhile to see what he was going to choose next. Thankfully it was this one.

This film reminded me of Payne’s earlier film, ‘About Schmidt‘ because it had some very funny times where I laughed that were also under-lined with real heart-wrenching moments as well. The humor here is a lot more dry and sarcastic, rather than being straight-up in-your-face about it, but either way worked because it had me laughing just about every time without ever feeling forced.

Where the film really works is where it gets emotional and shows real heart in how it handles each and every situation this film goes through. Moments and situations that you think are going to go one way, end up happening a completely different way then you imagined and the way Payne makes us feel something not only for these characters, but this story as well is where the film really worked.

Life is very unpredictable and it can sometimes be very messy, but for this Matt King guy, it seems like his life is really at a loss. However, the plot itself doesn’t feel like a major let-down and instead of hammering us over the head with constant mushy moments that would seem forced in many other films, it goes for the subtle realism that comes in anybody’s life and Payne always reminds us that it’s not just how we act about ourselves, but also with each other. It’s better to be there for one another, rather than not being there at all and I think that’s what this film really did a good job with trying to convey.

My main problem with this film is that I feel like the whole angle where Matt is stuck in this huge-ass sale of his ancestor’s land was just annoying, and kind of got in the way of the actual dilemma at hand. With this sub-plot, the film was trying to show us how Matt is in a more conflicting moment in his life and how he has all of this pressure on his back of basically getting rid of his whole family history, which to me seemed way to obvious and unneeded considering Matt is already finding himself with his family. I think without this sub-plot the film would have been a lot more easier to feel emotion for but instead it just adds on another idea that was not needed.

I also had a problem with the pacing because I really did feel as if it was a little bit too much of a languid pace for me. There were moments where this film really seemed like it was picking up some steam, and then there were times where it just dragged on to show us something about this character that I didn’t feel was needed and more of Payne just giving us moments of silence rather than characters actually talking.

George Clooney gives a great performance as Matt King, and it’s almost to a point where it’s too hard to tell a good Clooney performance from a bad Clooney performance. Here as King, he down-plays his natural charisma but he still has moments where he show that charm that makes him so damn likable in the first place, which makes the comedy work even more when he’s being a tad goofy. There are also many emotional scenes where Clooney is supposed to show his grief and pain through his facial expressions and I think it really works well and I think Clooney was a very good choice for this role.

As with ‘Up in the Air’, Clooney is given another young-actress to accompany him throughout the whole film and almost up-stage him here with Shailene Woodley in a great role as the rebellious daughter, Alexandra. She is mean, angry, and a little bothered by her dad but still has enough love and sympathy for him where she can ease up and realize that their whole family is going through a hard time. Nick Krause plays her boyfriend, Sid, who reminds me of a younger Keanu Reeves but in a good way; Beau Bridges is funny and really cool as cousin Hugh; Robert Forster plays the King’s father-in-law and boy did he get old, but he’s still good; and Judy Greer is awesome here as King’s wife’s boyfriend’s wife. I know that was a pretty long one but hey, I tried to make sense.

Speaking of King’s wife’s boyfriend, he is played a face that nobody has seen in quite a long time, a guy by the name of Matthew Lillard. Yes, Shaggy from Scooby-Doo is a person that some chick would rather bone than George Clooney. I think this casting was awesome because Lillard is actually very good and shows a lot of range as a dramatic actor and it’s just such a surprise to see how old this guy looks now as well. His character is also fleshed-out very well as is every other character in this film and I think that’s why this film really works in the end, because nobody is a caricature. They are all real people and all have real feelings, even if they may be a little bit messed up.

Consensus: The Descendants has problems with it’s languid pacing but is very sweet, emotional, and rich in character development where it shows how people deal with grief and the unpredictability of life. Not my favorite film of the year but a very good one that I’m glad to see that Alexander Payne wrote and directed.



  1. Excellent review Dan. I’ve been looking forward to this for ages. Payne has made us wait for years for a new film. I loved Sideways. Can’t wait to see this.

  2. Dan the Man! I think this is the first time we have the same review up at the same time! LOL. I rushed over to see this when I saw you had posted it… and I was hoping you had liked it more than this, but an 8.5 is a really good grade here, so I can’t complain.

    This was easily one of my favorite films of the year, and I think its a future all time classic.

    The issue surrounding the sale of the land wasn’t a miscue by Payne, Dan. I felt that it had something to say about how we pass the world on to the next generation. What do we stand for? Our actions shape what they get left with. Look at the reckless, speed boating, action sports junkie Mom… died and didn’t do well by her children. While studious, upright, morally centered Matt is there for them and protective, etc. Draw some paralells between that and the sale of the land. Does he want to protect the beauty and future of the island? Or sell it for a strip mall/golf course combo so that he can get rich?

    I think on the deepest thematic level, the movie is about how our choices affect the world for the future. And like all good themes, its woven in on a subtle level. But its there if you choose to look for it. šŸ˜€

    Great opening line, btw, one of your best.

  3. I agree with you, I thought the pace was a little slow as well. I think w/ the land thing, he was trying to show how Clooney’s opinions change based on all of the stuff he had to deal with … and of course, he would have had to rename the movie too if he had taken that out. šŸ™‚

    (this is Liz from the post you commented on, btw, also of The Descendants – I have my own site too,

  4. Great Review Dan! Agree, especially on the land sale part. The only saving grace, and why i chose not to lamb-baste it in my review, was that it establishes the more blatant “Descendants” angle…that which we inherit, literally as in the land and our responsibilities to it, and figuratively, as in the emotional horrors of tragedy and how we cope. Awesome take!

  5. I have a differing perspective on the land sale/descendants part of the film. It is just another part of the family in one sense. You know descendants of the Hawaiian Royalty. But it needed inclusion because it made us question the boyfriend’s motives, and it made us think about the importance of preserving a slice of the natural beauty of our lands.

    Payne probably felt that by adding another piece of heft to Matt King’s already weighty problems, he had to struggle more and wrestle more with the decisions. I also think that adding this as an additional tier of issues was probably ecause he was positioning it as a possible root cause of his wife’s infidelity as well as his distance from parenting. I mean he does say – I am the backup parent – the understudy.

    So if he wasn’t parenting, or keeping his wife happy – what was he doing? Likely his business – the law practice -and the land deal.

    So on that basis – the land deal was a crucial component.


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