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Monday, Nov. 21, 2011

The Descendants

Film tackles life and death, fidelity and family

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Matt King, the George Clooney protagonist of The Descendants, starts the film by remarking how associates from the mainland always assume that his Hawaiian home is paradise. The images on the screen tell us where he's going before he gets there: We see the Honolulu of ugly high-rises and snarled freeways, as well as the homeless and the neglected wandering through the lush subtropical foliage. Nature may be beautiful on the islands, even Edenic, but the people living there are confronted by the same problems as everyone else in the world.

Basing The Descendants on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, writer-director Alexander Payne (Sideways) plays the story with his usual plain-spoken Midwest restraint, warming the tragedies that are inseparable from life with a touch of irony and good humor. Matt's wife—their marriage had been less than fulfilling—is in a coma from a boating accident. Suddenly, the fallback parent has to focus on his precocious if naughty 10-year-old daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), and his reckless and rebellious teenager, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). When the physician informs Matt that his wife will never emerge from her coma, the provisions of her living will are activated. The life support is turned off. Within a matter of days she will be dead.

But that isn't the only bad news Matt must face. Alexandra drops the bomb on the rubble of his well-being when she announces, “Dad, mom was cheating on you!” Alexandra is angry at mom for being unfaithful, at dad for being clueless—just angry at everyone and everything.

As the calendar creeps inevitably closer to the funeral, The Descendants becomes concerned with Matt's morphing, emotionally unstable reaction to the revelation about his wife. He blames himself, he blames her, he wants to find the other man. In full command of his role, Clooney's eyes reveal dismay, sympathy, rage and heartbreak—all the primary colors of the human heart. In the background is another problem, the future of a fragment of paradise preserved from Hawaii's past. The King family, descended from early American settlers as well as the island's royal family, are under pressure to sell a parcel of virgin shoreline to developers. The sight of what Hawaii has been turned into, with its gated subdivisions and golf courses, tugs gently at Matt's social conscience as he wrestles with the immediate personal issues of life, death, fidelity and family.

The film opens Nov. 23 at the Oriental Landmark Theatre.