REVIEW: ‘The Descendants.’ Aloha Means Goodbye.
2. George Clooney, in a fully realized and refreshingly buckled-down performance, plays Matt King, a Hawaiian man whose primary job is to run the trust of his extended family's patch of land, a gorgeous Kauai beachfront that his vast number of cousins want him to sell to a hotel consortium. He has put so much work into this "job" -- a discrepancy the movie never quite resolves; what has he been so busy doing for the last decade, exactly? -- that he has drifted away from his wife and his two daughters, becoming what he calls "the backup parent." This all dissolves, though, when his wife is critically injured in a boating accident, and all the strains and responsibilities of his life, strains and responsibilities he'd been quietly and almost imperceptibly skirting, come crashing down on him at once. And when he discovers that his wife had a secret life of her own, Matt has to figure out everything, all at once, with everyone watching, staring and wanting more.
3. The movie doesn't hit the right tone at first. We spend way too much time setting up the story, even tossing in some Clooney expository narration that the movie drops just as soon as it brings it up. The movie also plays a little more broadly early on, like it's trying to win you over, like it's trying to get you on its side before it drops the heavy business later on. (Much of this is personified by the film's worst character, Sid, a lunkheaded male companion of Matt's daughter, who is supposed to be a comic combination of Thomas Hayden Church's character in "Sideways" and Steve Holt from "Arrested Development," but isn't nearly charismatic or funny enough to approach either. (He's sort of the film's Poochie; you keep waiting for him to die on the way back to his home planet.) The movie, smartly, dispatches with Sid and the more conventional elements halfway through and becomes something quite different: a modern, almost dirge-like, meditation on loss, on family, on what it means to be a parent and what it means to be a productive, meaningful member of society. What it means, essentially, to try to figure out what will make the world better, rather than worse, and the ramifications of those decisions. The movie sneaks up on you, letting you in through Clooney's understated, completely believable performance, and then knocking you over when you're least expecting it. It's quite a trick: "The Descendants" is basically a philosophical treatise on grief and morality, in a Hawaiian shirt.