And it wouldn't work without Clooney, who plays Matt King, a lawyer and sometimes absentee father and husband who is lost taking care of his two daughters while his wife is in a coma. After he finds out that there's no hope of her coming out of it, Matt is shaken further to learn from his teenaged daughter, Alex (Shailene Woodley), that his wife of nearly two decades was screwing some guy ("some douchebag" in Alex's words). So with Alex's help and his younger daughter Scottie, and Alex's idiot friend Sid (Nick Krause) in tow, the quartet tries to find said douchebag to tell him that Matt's wife is dying and to see his face. Running parallel to all of this is Matt's anxiety about being the executor to his family's 25,000 acre land trust which has been passed down for generations--his extended family, a gaggle a Hawaiian shirt-wearing cousins--are pushing him to sell the property for some number in the nine-digit range. This subplot doesn't really go anywhere especially interesting, but it does allow Beau Bridges to do his best impression of Jeff Bridges as "the Dude."
How do you grieve your spouse, lover, boyfriend or whatever when you find out you didn't really know them and probably lost them a long time ago? What do you do with that? How do you unpack those feelings? The true wonder of The Descendants is watching Matt go through all this without going too broad or obvious with where his head and heart are (the narration is dropped in the first couple of minutes). Matt's struggling to figure out how to remember his wife and what their marriage meant throughout, but that's not to say the movie's a mope-fest. Given that it's Payne, it's also darkly funny throughout. Matt's a smart guy, and his attempts to work through his feelings and kind of control his reaction to everything that's happening to him lead to some of The Descendants' best moments--I'm thinking in particular of the scene in the bungalow with the other man as well as his interactions with his bully of a father-in-law, played by Robert Forster.
This last bit actually wraps up one of the more interesting ideas that Payne's script deals with: what memories do the people who die leave behind for us. Matt's father-in-law saw his daughter one way that doesn't necessarily jibe with the facts. Alex knows a lot more, but her idea of her mother is clouded by anger, while Scottie doesn't even know that her mother is about to die and has a less complicated view of her. I keep coming back to a moment where Alex calls her mother a whore within earshot of Scottie and Matt stops her: "Don't do that. Don't ruin her for Scottie," he says (or words to that effect). Knowing what he knows, Matt still wants Scottie to have a gentler picture of his wife than he might have in his own head.
It's this kind of insight, this kind of complicated acknowledgment of grief that made me appreciate everyone's work here and made The Descendants one of the strongest dramatic works from last year.
Presentation, Audio, and Video
Beyond the silent doc The World Parade--Hawaii, there's not a lot to recommend among the special features on this disc. I was interested in seeing the conversation between Clooney and Payne, but it's mostly a lot of mutual congratulations for being very good at what they do. Both men have impeccable memories for film history, but it feels like they'd prefer to spend their time on camera during this 11-minute chat lightly touching on film history than shedding much light on their work here.
The Descendants is available now on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD.