Director Alexander Payne has given us “Election,” “About Schmidt,” and “Sideways.” Now the Nebraskan has turned out an award nomination magnet called “The Descendants,” a movie with a middle almost strong enough to overcome its critically weak opening and ending.
“The Descendants” explains, sort of, how Hawaiian lawyer Matt King decides what to do about a parcel of virgin land on “the big island.” His family, descendants of the Kings of the Sandwich Islands, have this parcel still in trust, though other family possessions have been sold off before. Some of the many cousins with head rights (including characters played by Beau Bridges and Michael Ontkean) have already run through their inheritances.
There are two known bidders for the property, each of them wanting to build hotels and shops and houses on it. The majority of cousins favor selling for a lower price to a Hawaiian developer, for reasons clear to them and murky to viewers. As sole trustee, Matt will soon accept recommendations from his kin, but the decision must be his.
He is distracted. His wife, Elizabeth has been thrown from a speedboat and is in a coma from which the doctors say she will not emerge. Early in the film he has some trouble managing his daughters, a ten-year-old, Scottie, and an ex-delinquent girl, Alexandra, perhaps six years older. Troubles with them disappear without Matt’s having apparently done anything to get that result, and this view of life marks the rest of the film—we don’t act to solve problems, it suggests, we just hold on and ride ride ride the wild surf.
Matt discovers that his wife has been having sex with another man. In a scene which must have been intended as comic but which consequently violates the film’s tone, he runs in sandals around the block to visit Elizabeth’s best friend and her husband. They confirm the story, adding that Lizzie loved her lover and intended to ask Matt for a divorce. So they’ll hurt him unnecessarily, but the wife won’t identify the lover. Why? And why does the husband finally tell Matt that his rival was a real estate man named Brian Speer?
At this point the viewer knows the whole story, knows how the sub-plot of the lover figures in the business about the land sale. But the movie spends a bit of time having Matt find and talk with Speer (Matthew “Shaggy” Lillard) and his wife (played, I think, by Judy Greer). Matt gets little satisfaction from the people—his wife, Speer, his father-in-law, his cousins, and so on—who punish him. And he does little to avoid the punishment.
Nevertheless, the middle of the story is interesting, and the search for Speer takes us to native Hawaii. Unfortunately these events lead only to a series of whimpers and a rolling of closing titles.
The beginning of the film is actually even worse for viewers. Scottie has made some seemingly routine comment to one of her classmates who has complained to the school and to her own mother. For reasons we can only speculate about, Matt takes this all very seriously and takes Scottie to apologize to her classmate, who doesn’t seem all that upset.
Her mother is, though, big time. And so are the school authorities, apparently because they are angry that he may allow the development of property a couple of islands away. Why he doesn’t tell them on the phone that Scottie is likely upset because her mother is in a coma, have a little understanding idiots, I couldn’t guess.
This early sequence is actually unnecessary to the film’s story. But then maybe we should put the term “story” in quotes here. Do we watch Matt King live his life with a will? Or does he just hang loose? I tire of unproductive narrative.