The Descendants

Released:  2011

Cast:  George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard

Oscar Wins:  Best Adapted Screenplay (Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash)

Oscar Nominations:  Best Picture, Best Actor (George Clooney), Best Director (Alexander Payne), Best Editing (Kevin Tent)

SUMMARY:  Matt King (George Clooney)is a property lawyer in Honolulu, where he lives with his wife and two daughters.  Matt is also the trustee of a long-standing family trust of 25,000 acres on Kauai.  The land has been in the family for many generations, and because of the rule against perpetuities, the trust will expire in seven years.  The other family members, most of whom have spent what money they once had from the land, want to sell for an enormous sum, being offered by several different buyers.  In order to choose which bid to accept, Matt has scheduled a family meeting.  As all of this is going on, Matt’s wife Elizabeth is injured in a boating accident, hitting her head, nearly drowning, and ultimately putting her into a coma.  This forces Matt away from his work and into his own family, which he has basically ignored.  He becomes the sole caregiver for his daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley).  Both daughters have issues:  Scottie is coping with her mother’s coma by lashing out at other children, while Alex has a history of drug abuse and promiscuity, and is already at a private boarding school.  Matt knows that Alex and Elizabeth had some kind of dispute the last time Alex was home, but when the doctors tell him that Elizabeth will not come out of the coma, he pulls her out of school and takes her home.  Matt tells her that she must help him break the news to the family, only to have Alex reveal the reason for the fight with her mother:  Elizabeth was having an affair, and Alex found out about it.  Matt immediately goes to a friend’s house and forces them to reveal the man’s name:  Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard).  Matt and Alex decide to track him down, joined by Alex’s friend Sid.  They learn that Speer is a real estate agent, but their attempts to meet him fall through.  However, Matt decides that Speer should know about Elizabeth’s imminent death, so when he learns that Speer is on Kauai, he, the two girls, and Sid head there as well.

Matt shows the girls the land that is the family inheritance, and runs into one of his cousins, Hugh (Beau Bridges) at a local bar.  To his surprise, he learns that Speer has another connection to the King family:  Speer’s brother-in-law is the developer that the family is leaning toward selling the land to; Brian will be the agent of the sale, and therefore make quite a lot of money off the transaction.  The four ultimately do find Speer, but learn that he has brought his wife Julie (Judy Greer) and two sons with him.  Alex and Matt go over to their cabin one evening, and while Alex distracts Julie, Matt confronts Speer.  Speer confesses to the affair, and says that although Elizabeth loved him, he did not return the feeling.  He apologizes to Matt, and asks him not to reveal the affair to Julie.  Matt and his family return to Honolulu, and Elizabeth is disconnected from life support.  Her father comes by and berates Matt for not giving Elizabeth the life she deserved:  Matt says nothing, but to his surprise, both Sid and Alex speak up in his favor.  Not long after, the King family meets to finalize their decision on the land sale.  They vote to sell to Speer’s brother-in-law, but Matt unexpectedly decides that he cannot sell the land.  Hugh is angry at Matt for keeping all of his cousins away from the money they expected, but Matt doesn’t care:  he vows to spend the remaining seven years of the trust finding a way to keep the land in the family.  Afterward, he returns to Elizabeth’s hospital room to wait for the end.  Brian Speer does not come to say goodbye, but Julie Speer does, saying that she felt somebody from the family needed to visit.  She has learned about the affair, but forgives Elizabeth for what she did.  When everybody else has gone, Matt kisses Elizabeth goodbye, then lets his daughters visit her alone.  A short time later, the three scatter her ashes in the ocean.  The final shot of the film is of Matt and his two daughters sitting on the couch, watching TV and eating ice cream together.

MY TAKE:  This movie was from the same director as Sideways, and while that was an okay movie, I did not have the same high opinion of it as everybody else seemed to.  This movie was equally well-received, but I liked this movie a lot better.  It poses a really interesting issue:  Matt’s wife is dying, but while she’s in a coma he learns she’s been having an affair, and wanted to leave him.  I can definitely see how this would create conflicting feelings, although I don’t know how anybody could ever cheat on George Clooney.  To top it all off, Matt learns that she’s never going to regain consciousness, so he never gets to talk things over with her, or hear her explanation.  It’s sort of like having to go through the grief process really, really quickly, because you know she’s going to die in only a few days, and you don’t want to be angry when she goes.  In addition, he has to take care of two daughters, both of whom have issues and neither of whom he has experience with.  Alex is particularly difficult, because she is totally aware of the dynamic between her parents, and knows pretty early on that her mother won’t recover.  Oddly, she and Matt kind of team up to find Brian Speer, which seems to bring them together and help their issues.  Alex also seems to mature a little bit, particularly when it comes to taking care of her sister.  Of course, that doesn’t stop her from the occasional profane outburst, which though probably inappropriate in front of Scottie, was usually hilarious.  Despite the rough start they got off to, by the end of the film I felt like Matt and the girls would actually be okay.

RATING:  Not bad.

 

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