Attorney Matt King (George Clooney) traces his lineage back to the 19th Century marriage of the last Hawaiian monarch to a European missionary. Today, as the family patriarch, he’s been kept very busy by having to manage 25,000 acres of prime real estate on behalf of the extended clan.
Hence, he and his sorely-neglected his wife, Liz (Patricia Hastie), have drifted so far apart that he’s unaware of her carrying on an affair practically right under his nose. To add insult to injury, her lover is the local realtor (Matthew Lillard) who stands to make a fortune in commissions should Matt follow through with tentative plans to sell all the property in the trust to a developer.
Meanwhile, emotionally-unavailable Matt has also grown distant from his two daughters. 10 year-old Scottie (Amara King) has no qualms about giving her dad the finger, and her equally-rebellious teenage sister, Alex (Shailene Woodley), has taken to using drugs and dating boys a lot older than herself.
Everything changes the day Liz is left in a coma by a boating accident. Shaken out of the doldrums by the tragedy, Matt vows on the spot to be a better husband and father. But when the doctor’s dire diagnosis indicates that Liz is unlikely to emerge from a vegetative state, the best he can do is try to repair the relationships with his girls.
This is the engaging point of departure of The Descendants, a dysfunctional family drama based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’ debut novel of the same name. Directed and adapted to the big screen by Oscar-winner Alexander Payne (for Sideways), the film stars George Clooney cast against type as a Prodigal parent filled with overwhelming regret, a far more introspective soul than the freewheeling bachelors and bon vivants he ordinarily gets to play.
Unfortunately, he fails to cultivate the requisite gravitas to convince you that Matt has indeed been deeply affected by his wife’s imminent demise or that his decision to spend quality time with his kids is heartfelt. The problem is that, as narrator, he often merely informs the audience of his feelings via voiceover, as opposed to displaying the claimed character development via observable facial expressions.
That being said, even if Clooney is the picture’s weak link, the rest of the ensemble cast turn in such splendid performances that they more than make up for his slight failings. Making it even more worthwhile is how it all unfolds against the visually-captivating backdrop island of Kauai.
A touching enough to recommend tale about an absentee father’s belated, if bittersweet, quest for redemption.