‘The Descendants’ — a family drifts apart yet remains whole

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

In many ways, “The Descendants” is a descendant of “Terms of Endearment.” New terms and new endearments for a new century.

But some things are forever…like families and the bonds that not only tie but also choke.

Directed with insight and humor by Alexander Payne, “The Descendants” is willing — almost daringly so — to trust the audience to stick with it as it zigzags from near-farce to tragedy and back again.

This is not new territory for Payne, whose past work includes such emotionally complex gems as “Election” “About Schmidt” and “Sideways.” The same can be said for his star, George Clooney, who does his best work since “Up in the Air.”

“The Descendants” begins with a laughing woman named Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) on water skis, the sea spray dotting her face, the mighty beauty of Hawaii a breath away. What we don’t see is the accident that lands her in a hospital bed in a deep — and possibly life-ending — coma.

Clooney plays her husband, Matt King, a Hawaiian native with, as his name suggests, royal blood. He is the great-great-great, etc.-etc.-etc. grandson of a Hawaiian princess and a Mainlander. His heritage, along with dozens of cousins, is a comfortable lifestyle and 25,000 acres of pristine land which developers (who else?) want to purchase.

However, immediate family, not the extended sort, is the center of this canny film (the land/developer part is essential, perhaps, but clumsily wrought).

Matt and Elizabeth have two daughters — Scottie (Amara Miller), a wide-eyed 10-year-old, and Alex (Shailene Woodley), a teenage hellion. Matt, an admittedly flawed husband, is not prepared for family responsibility, especially in the face of a life-and-death crisis. “I’m the back-up parent,” he protests. “The understudy.”

Not only must he man-up as a Dad; he must also deal with an inappropriate relationship his wife has been having behind his back. Yelling at her inert body isn’t going to do it. So, daughters in tow, he takes off to track down this other man (Matthew Lillard).

What’s perhaps most pleasing about “The Descendants” is how easily it handles difficult things. And it does so without relying only on Clooney’s charm. That’s a major weapon in the movie’s arsenal, but more important is the relationships that develop, the family that evolves despite daunting obstacles.

As Payne always does, he’s provided his lead actors with a superb supporting cast. There’s Robert Forster as Clooney’s pugnacious father-in-law. And Nick Krause as Alex’s slacker boyfriend whose stoned-puppy manner offers welcome comic relief at the most unexpected moments. And Beau Bridges as a semi-beach-bum-my cousin who can’t understand Matt’s sudden hesitation about selling their land

Best of all is Judy Greer as Lillard’s wife. She’s on the fringe of the story, but she may edge her way to a best supporting actress nomination in spite of her limited screen time.

“A family feels exactly like an archipelago,” Clooney muses. “Separate but part of a whole and always drifting slowly apart.”

Perhaps that’s the secret of Payne’s fine film. The different characters seem to be drifting apart, yet they are always part of a whole.

A whole who, as we watch, find a kind of healing. And even grace.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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