There has been an accident. Lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) is now trying to cope with his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) in a coma at the hospital, and the fact he lives on Hawaii is no comfort, no matter what outsiders and tourists to the place might think: no matter where you are, no matter how clement the weather, if you're labouring under misery then it's just as bad for you. Seeking to make the best of a poor situation, Matt struggles to look after his young daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) but finds he doesn't understand her, and as for her teenage sister Alexandra (Shailene Woodley)...
By the time The Descendants had been released, co-writer and director Alexander Payne was well established as a creative talent with a fanbase who would see anything he made, so much so that when this was Oscar nominated in numerous categories it would have been more of a shock if it had been ignored. But while there were those who would gladly be entertained, and they hoped, moved by Payne's work, there were just as many who found what had become a particular brand of relationship comedy drama something of a turn-off, as if these were the equivalent of sitting on a plane journey stuck next to a stranger who insisted on telling you their problems.
On the other hand, a problem shared is a problem halved, or so the saying goes, so it was possible for more receptive audiences to feel improved by Payne's deadpan humorous takes on life, acknowledging that not only does nobody get out of here alive, but chances were you were going to feel some pain and probably cause some into the bargain. If you were lucky, these two inevitabilities would be kept to a minimum, but as Elizabeth shows even by doing nothing (due to her coma), it's likely heartache will ensue. So when Matt gets the talk from the doctor that there's nothing he can do, and the best course of action would be to allow her family and friends to say goodbye, he feels like he's been in a boating accident himself.
Except that for all his shock, Matt still has to go on, and tackle another bodyslam of a twist: Elizabeth was having an affair behind his back, and he has to hear it from Alexandra, who knew but couldn't tell him before she confronted her mother. And now her mother is to all intents and purposes dead to the world, so understandably she is wrestling with her own emotional conflict. And so it goes on, more problems spiralling out from Matt's marriage with his father-in-law (Robert Forster on excellent, gruff form) not exactly sympathetic and somehow blaming him for all that has gone wrong even though Matt sees himself as more sinned against than sinning. But there's one thing which can occupy his mind: find the man who cuckolded him.
This becomes a mission which offers meaning to a senseless, tragic period in Matt's life, providing much of the plot for the lengthy middle section, but also underlines his essential helplessness as he is buffetted around by life's tides and storms. In its weird way, The Descendants verged on the existential, with its harrassed hero unfettered by any kind of control over his life, and seeking to address that by making a big decision which in effect has nothing to do with his dying wife at all, for he and his cousins have to make a sale of a very old land deal their ancestors made on one of the islands, which greedy investors now wish to turn into a holiday resort, giving Matt's family a shedload of cash in the process. Can this give him the meaning he seeks? Clooney numbly went through a gamut of emotions as his confused character did what he could with an impossible situation, feeling he is leaving his daughters with no guidance or security; it was one of his best performances and you could well see why he so wanted to work with Payne. If a little slight overall, its wry, resigned humour was quietly touching.
American writer/director of offbeat comedy drama. Payne's first film was the abortion satire Citizen Ruth, but it was 1999's acclaimed, Oscar-nominated satire Election brought the director to prominence. The affecting road movie About Schimdt showcased one of Jack Nicholson's best ever performances, while 2004's Sideways gained Payne yet more awards and acclaim. Seven years later came the Hawaii-set follow up, The Descendants, which was similarly lauded, then shortly afterwards the multi-Oscar-nominated and expertly judged Nebraska.