Matt King’s (George Clooney) wife in “The Descendants” is in a coma, the result of a traumatic brain injury suffered in a boating accident. Yet it is really King himself who is trying to wake up — he has been drifting through life, marriage and parenting, and his wife’s grave condition forces the real estate lawyer to disengage his autopilot.
The opening film shown at this year’s Telluride Film Festival, “The Descendants” is writer-director Alexander Payne’s first feature since 2004’s Oscar-winning “Sideways.” While the film on first blush may sound a bit like Clooney’s “Up in the Air” — the Jason Reitman movie that also had its world premiere in Telluride in the same slot two years ago — the films ultimately have little in common.
Adapted by Payne and screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel of the same name, “The Descendants” is set in Hawaii, where King is the sole trustee of a 25,000-acre parcel held in a family trust since the 1860s. King’s relatives want him to cash out for untold millions and yield to developers, but King has more pressing problems.
With his wife, Elizabeth, unlikely ever to regain consciousness, King has to figure out how to care for his two daughters. Ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) is despondent over her mother’s condition, while 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) is rebelling through alcohol, drugs and promiscuity. “I’m the backup parent, the understudy,” King says in a voiceover. All of a sudden, he’s onstage and doesn’t know any of the lines.
“You really don’t have a clue, do you?” his older daughter asks him at one point. It turns out, he really doesn’t.
King quickly finds out that Alexandra is acting out not because of her age but because she knows a family secret that has missed her father’s notice. So the three Kings (along with Alexandra’s boyfriend, Sid) set out on an inter-island road trip, trying not only to deal with the secret but also to figure out how to function as a family. At the same time, they have to confront their mother's mortality, which is both frank and moving.
Clooney said after the screening that it was “a weird thing” to be playing “such a schlub at times.” And if you missed Clooney in 1996’s “One Fine Day,” you may not have seen him playing a dad before — “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” doesn’t count. While it’s hard to make Clooney look bad, he’s no Danny Ocean in Payne's movie — the haircut isn’t tidy, the clothes scarcely stylish.
The same can be said for how Payne depicts Hawaii: This is not a tourism ad, and the island is filled with ordinary-looking people (some are fat, some use wheelchairs, some are poor) with some extraordinary problems. And yet, at the same time, the land anchors the story — it’s what ties these characters together, and may drive them apart. Said Payne: “I have never seen Hawaii in a movie like this.”
After playing in Telluride, “The Descendants” will travel to the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival, where its critical and awards prospects could be cemented. Fox Searchlight will release the film Nov. 23. For audiences who have been waiting so long for Payne’s return to the movies, that’s less than three months away.
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-- John Horn in Telluride, Colo.
Photo: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller in "The Descendants." Credit: Fox Searchlight