Alexandre Payne’s first movie in seven years is about Matt King (George Clooney), a Hawaii based lawyer and the trustee over his family’s pristine lands, worth in the billions of dollars, as they are about to sell. However, tragedy hits Matt’s family when a boating accident strikes his wife Elizabeth and she becomes comatose. It is then that Matt has to deal with his two daughters Scottie and Alex (Shaileene Woodley in a brilliant role), except that he always thought of himself as the “backup parent.” And after learning that his wife will never wake up, Matt has to set out on the path to say goodbye.
But as Matt’s older daughter Alex reveals, her mother was having an affair with a real-estate agent named Brian Speer, with the intention of asking for divorce. The Descendants then becomes Matt’s obsession with finding Speer, to see the man who was taking his wife away from him and to allow him the chance to bid her farewell.
Telling it like this, The Descendants seem like a true tear-jerker, right? Well, no. The movie is flimsy. This is a movie that wants to confront painful truths about love, loss, family, yet there’s a sense of emotional brittleness present throughout. It attempts to build itself as an emotional tour de force for the viewer but comes crashing down without satisfying neither itself nor the viewer in question. Even the scene, which is supposed to be the movie’s highlight, of Matt talking to his comatose wife, seeking catharsis, ends flat amid all the emotional dryness of the previous acts.
Perhaps The Descendant‘s biggest mistake, of sorts, is the fact that you can’t relate emotionally to the movie’s centerpiece: the wife who’s dying. After learning that she was cheating on him, you get disconnected from her character and, in a movie that is almost two hours, there isn’t enough character development to let you perhaps give her a reprieve, even as she lays in the hospital bed on life-support.