Alexander Payne’s adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel The Descendants deftly walks a fine line (for the most part) between comedy and drama as it tells the tale of a workaholic Hawaiian lawyer (George Clooney) trying to cope with the irreversible coma of his wife, while brokering the imminent sale of a huge tract of pristine, picture-postcard family-owned (it’s a big extended-family, including Beau Bridges) Hawaiian real estate. In addition, the wife’s coma forces him to reacquaint himself with his daughters, the eldest of whom (Shailene Woodley) blindsides Dad with the news that Mom had been having an affair. What really works here—besides the stunning Hawaiian scenery, is a sensitive performance from George Clooney, who extends a run of really fine work (well, besides The American) as the put-upon lawyer and part-time father. The long passages at his wife’s bedside as he balances compassion, hurt and anger are extremely wrenching. Clooney’s rage when he discovers his wife’s affair, coupled with what he sees as betrayal from his in-laws(who knew)–followed by the desire to know the identity of this lover– are all portrayed in a realistic, heartfelt and at times serio-comic manner. This is especially apparent when Clooney and clan head to another island in an effort to confront this lover.
In addition to Clooney, the movie has as fine an ensemble as any we’ve seen this year. Robert Forster is heartbreaking as the embittered father-in-law who blames Clooney’s neglect (and frugality) for his daughter’s condition. Shailene Woodley delivers a star making performance as the rebellious daughter who takes Dad to task for his neglect, and slowly warms up to him in the midst of their shared grief—and quest to locate the lover. Beau Bridges also acquits himself well as the folksy yet pragmatic cousin who represents the family’s desire to unload the land and make a financial killing, while Matthew Lilliard and Judy Greer are also excellent in pivotal second-act roles. The only thing that doesn’t quite work is the resolution to the real-estate subplot—it tries for an emotional heft it doesn’t really merit. Yet everything else about the film –especially Clooney –works beautifully.