Director Alexander Payne (Sideways) delivers more melancholy in The Descendants (on Blu-Ray and DVD this week), a folks-next-door slice of life that serves as a star vehicle for Best Actor nominee George Clooney (Ides of March, Good Night, and Good Luck, Michael Clayton) in the role of a wealthy native Hawaiian who struggles with whether to sell native land to developers while his cheating wife lies in a coma and he stalks the man with whom she was having an affair.
It sounds more dramatic than it is. This downbeat movie, which features good scenic photography, boils down to a theme that everyone is flawed. Clooney’s Matt King mopes around, as Clooney characters have moped (Solaris, Up in the Air, Leatherheads) since his Doug Ross moped around NBC’s ER. Matt is sufficiently sad and we sense that there’s more to him than meets the eye. He discovers that his wife was fooling around in the same week he finds out she’s on her death bed after a boating accident. But he remains too unsympathetic, enmeshing his foul-mouthed daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), keeping secrets from his bullying other daughter (Amara Miller), Scottie, and invading his father-in-law’s privacy, all while keeping distance from human touching. Clooney’s Matt King provides the narrative.
Payne works with the cast to fine effect, especially in Miller as Scottie, who offers the best humor in the most involving character. Other standouts include Nick Krause as Sid the stoner, Beau Bridges (Sordid Lives) as Matt’s cousin Hugh, Matthew Lillard as the other man and Robert Forster as the dying wife’s father. In his role as Hawaiian Islands’ King Kamehameha’s descendant, Clooney breaks down in certain scenes that stand out, such as a tender bedside moment.
But with an opening line in which his Matt King angrily declares that “paradise can go f–k itself,” The Descendants, which more or less closes with “I guess that’s it,” is more smug than profound. What lies in between obscures the climax, which features a husband and father who learns to put his interests first. Nominated for five Academy Awards and winner for Best Adapted Screenplay, The Descendants, based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings (who appears in the film), is a slog.
The Blu-ray features deleted scenes with introductions by Payne, bits on Clooney as Mr. Popular and a profile on Payne, pieces on the real descendants and Hawaii, casting, music videos and more, including a conversation with George Clooney and Alexander Payne. The DVD features the extras on Clooney, Payne and Hawaii, which is mostly a religious ceremony in which a native Hawaiian priest blesses the production.