In the film Hustle and Flow, Terrence Howard’s Djay writes a hit rap song called “It’s Hard Out There for a Pimp.” If George Clooney’s Matt King wrote a similar rap song for The Descendants, it would be, “It’s hard out there for a Hawaiian land baron.” Matt is a lawyer, a descendent of a well-to-do Hawaiian family that owns about a billion dollars worth of virgin land. He’s the executor of that land and has final say on whether he and his family will sell it, and to whom. With the decision pending, his wife is involved in a horrific boating accident that leaves her on life support in a vegetative state. And that, believe it or not, is where the fun begins.
Matt has spent the majority of his life adult life devoted to his practice, leaving it to his wife to raise his daughters Alex (the amazing Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (the spunky Amara Miller). Pre-teen Scottie has been acting out at school since her mom’s accident, while Alex hasn’t even bothered to return home from boarding school.
When the doctor tells Matt it’s time to disconnect his wife from life support, he has to retrieve Alex from school and figure out how to break the news to his daughters. Perhaps dropping in on Alex unannounced wasn’t the best idea. Matt finds her outside with a friend — drunk, and a bit defiant. She also drops the biggest bombshell yet on her father, telling Matt: “Mom was cheating on you.” Like I said, it’s hard out here for a Hawaiian land baron.
The Descendants features an outstanding cast, each of whom has their stand-out moment. Shailene Woodley’s sweetly belligerent performance as Alex is an excellent introduction to her, and may well land the actress an Oscar nomination. Matthew Lillard, perhaps best known to most as lovable schlub Shaggy in the live-action Scooby Doo movies, is rediscovered in The Descendants as Brian, the real estate agent with whom Matt’s wife was having her affair. Judy Greer as Brian’s wife Julie delivers one of the year’s best moments in film, followed moments later by Clooney delivering one of his best-ever on-screen moments. If you have a hunger for great film acting, this sequence is delicious. Indeed, if you have a hunger for great acting, The Descendants is a feast. Led by George Clooney in the most well-rounded performance of his career, it manages to strike that rare balance between funny and heartbreaking.
Four-and-a-half out of five stars.