An indifferent husband and father of two girls is is forced to re-examine his past and embrace his future when his wife suffers a boating accident off of Waikiki.
Elizabeth King is in a coma. Not much of an acting part for poor Patricia Hastie, bless her, but she does a valiant job under tricky circumstances. Unfortunately for our unconscious star, while the action taking place around her is entertaining enough, and even touches on raw humanity in places, it ultimately rings slightly hollow. I’d like to say that attractive Elizabeth creates that hollow – her intriguing and charismatic personality leaving a feeling of clutching emptiness at the core of the narrative. But in fact, it is hard to care much about the pretty, neglected wife and her predictable affair. Perhaps it wasn’t such great acting after all, Liz. Sorry.
George Clooney, meanwhile, is – as always – ruggedly watchable. He is at once soft and hard-nosed, sweet and cruel, troubled and carefree. His character, Matt King, is the most rounded in the film, a successful businessman struggling with single parenthood and coming to terms with not only his wife’s infidelity but the fact that it may have been partly his own fault.
His sexism, as a man too busy with work to concern himself with understanding his partner or daughters, is interesting. At one point, he wonders, ‘Why do all the women in my life want to destroy themselves?’ It reveals his crucial problem – everything revolves around ‘his life’. He worries that there is something ‘wrong’ with his children, not recognising the strangeness of his choice to allow deadbeat Sid – his wayward eldest daughter’s ‘friend’ – to travel along with the family. Is Sid actually not a deadbeat after all? It all feels fairly unimportant. It is near-impossible to really believe in any of the relationships in these films – least of all the half-missing one between Clooney and Hastie. Shape up, coma lady!
Few of the characters seem to care too much, either. Their gentle quipping saves The Descendants from being one extended shrug, but if director Alexander Payne wanted us to feel some sense of tragedy, he should have turned further towards the darker side he drew on when he came up with 1999’s wickedly funny Election.
Clooney’s baffled helplessness in the face of his daughters’ rudeness is a good laugh, and their collusion in stalking his wife’s secret lover hilariously silly. A funny throwaway line from the neighbours – ‘Come on in, we’re just fighting!’ – is one of the rare moments that almost elucidates characters who never quite appear in focus.
It is of course hugely satisfying to note that Clooney looks as ridiculous as the rest of us running flat-footed in sandals – and for this alone, the film is worth a look. But likeable Clooney seems ultimately untouched by his situation, as most viewers will be. ‘His pain, his joy’, as he calls his wife at the end, feels muffled. Payne’s vision of Hawaii felt more real than the story. Island life here is dusty, built-up and tacky, with tears screamed out underwater in swimming pools, garlands tossed solemnly into the sea, and cheesy bars and ‘Mahalos’ roughly concealing family strife.
You may not care about the land debate between Clooney’s extended family, but one of his truest lines comes as his Hawaiian-shirted cousins fill his garden. ‘Don’t be fooled by their appearance. Some of the most important people on this island look like bums and stuntmen.’ Sounds like Hollywood.