The near-two-hour film features star George Clooney in almost every shot, which may explain why “it’s a bit long in the tooth.” Clooney is goodlooking, but lacking in acting resource to make either comedy or drama jump at you. Co-written and directed by Alexander Payne (so good with Paul Giamatti in “Sideways”), “The Descendants” has Clooney’s Hawaiian lawyer/landowner Matt King walk a fine line between the light humor and dark tragedy of serious misfortune.
In extended voiceovers, Clooney as King tells us that he is one of few living Americans related to royalty. He is a direct descendant of Hawaiian King Kamehameha, whose daughter married an Anglo missionary-turned-banker perpetuating a lot of prime virgin land coming under heir King’s trusteeship. Egged on by a bunch of ne’er-do-well cousins, executor/trustee King plans to sell the land to a developer, after which the vultures will divvy up a pile of money.
Why is the well-heeled attorney so willing to sellout two centuries of family legacy? His neglected wife, Elizabeth, is in a boating-accident-caused coma and the extra money will enable him to drop his practice and pay attention to her when she awakens.
The problem is…she won’t. When he learns the bad news, King collects his two troubled daughters, 10- year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley), then tries to act like a parent… something he had left up to Elizabeth.
Into the ointment comes a sticky plot twist. It appears that the about-be-widower is also a cuckold. Alex reveals this as the source of her anger. It sets King off on a new venture: Finding the SOB who schtupped his wife.
At that point, “The Descendants” veers from deathbed drama to crazy stalker comedy, with Clooney encountering ample opportunities to dig out emotion or freak in funny ways. He pretty much plays it straight, leaving the laughs or pathos to his acting partners, one of the better ones being Nick Krause as Alex’s surprisingly responsible stoner boyfriend, Sid.
Based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, “The Descendants” would have benefited from a lead, who does more than look good. Hawaii can do that all by itself.