George Clooney’s bedraggled basset hound features have never been better exploited than in Alexander Payne’s perceptive and moving dramedy about a Hawaiian household in mourning. The Hollywood superceleb effortlessly dials down the star-power wattage as Matt King, ceaselessly apprehensive scion of an Aloha State brood that goes back generations. Matt’s now facing twin challenges: the potentially lucrative sale of a prime parcel of land and the impending death of his wife, Elizabeth (Hastie), who lies in an irreversible coma after a boating accident.
Elizabeth haunts every frame of The Descendants; Payne even begins the film with a loving, lingering close-up of her face that so precisely distils her character, it breaks your heart. In short, she’s no saint: Matt is quick to acknowledge their marriage had problems, but even he is shocked when his bellicose eldest daughter (Woodley) reveals that Mom was having an affair. So begins a leisurely, island-hopping road trip as Matt and his children spread the word about Elizabeth’s terminal condition and seek out the illicit lover. As ever, Payne – adapting a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings – walks a fine line between caricature and compassion. Only a bedside monologue by ‘other woman’ Judy Greer tips into the spiteful burlesque that marks the director at his droopy-breasted-Kathy-Bates worst. Otherwise, this is an exquisite portrait of a family navigating the wreckage imparted to them by one of their own.