The Descendants (2011) – A little slice of paradise

Synopsis: A Hawaiian land baron tries to re-connect with his two daughters after his wife is seriously injured in a boating accident…..with hilarious consequences!

My Take

Cinematic history is full of two things; movies that deal with the drudgery, pain and disillusionment of everyday life; and films about living in paradise. There are few films that base the former in the latter, and fewer that do it with such a deft hand.

Like one of my other firm director favourites, Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood), Payne often leaves years between films, meaning he has a small, but perfectly formed CV, full of beautifully formed stories of love and loss. The Descendants doesn’t break that streak.

The Descendents

There is nothing original about the story; man with everything loses his wife and is forced to get to know his wise-ass kids and the value of his family. The clichés of the islands in which the well trodden story is told are all there too; businessmen conducting their lives in loud shirts and board shorts; laid back surfer dudes in open top Jeeps; all set to a soundtrack of ukuleles.  The brilliance of The Descendants though is gently juxtaposing those cliches. The opening monologue defines the tone of the movie by questioning how people think that just because where you live looks like paradise the problems of the world somehow don’t apply to you. It’s jarring to watch someone go through a series of traumatic experiences in the backdrop of upper-middle class Hawaii. To quote Matt King “fuck you paradise.”

Like he did with Nicholson in About Schmidt, Payne did brilliantly to cast George Clooney in the role of the browbeaten, lost protagonist Matt King who looks like he just wants to curl up and go to sleep away from the traumas of the world. Aside from the traumas of his wife’s condition and the earth shattering news he receives after her admittance to the hospital, King faces extraordinary  pressures from all angles. As the sole trustee to a $500m pocket of land on one of the islands to be shared amongst him and his various cousins, he literally carries the weight of the State of Hawaii on his shoulders.

Alexander Payne gets a performance out of him that is somewhere between About Schmidt’s Warren Schmidt and Sideways’ Miles. He perfectly embodies the film’s juxtaposing tone; calmly wearing his pain on his bronzed face, framed by silver hair and Hawaiian shirts. He also refrains from to many look down, smirk, look up moves that he is so famous for, instead opting to let his sad eyes betray his cool Pacific exterior. He deserved his 2012 Oscar nomination.

Clooney is matched pound for pound in the acting arena by the girls playing his two daughters, particularly Shailene Woodley as his foul-mouthed, wicked-smart (I can’t say that without putting on the worst South Boston accent) older daughter Alex. She reminded of a young(er) Emily Blunt. Cute as a button as well. Holy crap. Much of the comic relief comes from Alex’s boyfriend (as in her friend who is a boy, as opposed to any romantic relationship) who is all surfer dude, often breaking the tension with an inappropriate comment delivered with surfer dude ambivalence to other people’s feelings. Also one of the greatest comedy punch moments since Avengers Assemble.

I have always been a fan of Alexander Payne’s work ever since watching a VHS copy of Election. That, for me, is a role that Reese Witherspoon will never better. You can keep your Oscar winning Walk The Line hoohah (I just turned into Al Pacino). The role of the manipulative, obsessive and devious high school student intent on winning EVERYTHING was the pinacle of her otherwise average output. But it was Sideways that cemented him as one of my favourite modern directors working today. Having seen it 5 times I was lucky enough the last time I was in California to pop into one of the vineyards where they filmed the “are you chewing gum?” scene and meet the dude who ran it. I also spent $60 on wine while I was there so that movie made them some cash.

The Descendants now easily sits up there with Sideways as my favourite Payne story.

Verdict: Must Watch


Director: Alexander Payne – The king of bittersweet, and one of my favourite directors of all time. His CV, like his movies, contain little flab; Election, About Schmidt and Sideways preceded this. All gems.

Writers: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash (screenplay) from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings

Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer and Robert Forster


  • George Clooney wanted to play the role of ‘Jack’ in Sideways, Alexander Payne’s last film. Payne turned him down, saying that he wanted someone lesser known for the role.
  • King Kamehameha I became the first sovereign of the unified Hawaiian Islands in 1810, and his last legitimate heir was Bernice Pauahi Bishop, who died in 1884. But Margaret Ke’Alohilani and Edward King, the ancestors of the film’s King family, are fictional.
  • Near the beginning of the film when Matt King describes his inherited wealth, he says, “I don’t want my daughters growing up entitled and spoiled. And I agree with my father – you give your children enough money to do something but not enough to do nothing.” This is based on a well-known quote from billionaire investor Warren Buffet, who said in a 1986 Fortune magazine interview that “…setting up his heirs with a lifetime supply of food stamps just because they came out of the right womb can be harmful for them and is an antisocial act. To him the perfect amount to leave children is ‘enough money so that they would feel they could do anything, but not so much that they could do nothing.'”

Available on DVD, BluRay and showing currently on Sky Movies


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