Why has it taken Alexander Payne seven years to follow up on Sideways? And what's blunted his edge? Payne's earlier movies have been driven by richly flawed characters — Reese Witherspoon's monstrous high school striver in Election, Jack Nicholson's thoroughly unpleasant widower in About Schmidt, the matched pair of jerks who stumble through Sideways — and Payne's great talent was extracting a sense of sympathy for them. But in The Descendants, it's more a case of bad things happening to good people: Honolulu lawyer Matt King (George Clooney), prosperous scion of a Hawaiian family, is humbled by a flurry of body blows. A waterskiing mishap has landed Matt's wife in a coma. His two daughters, the pre-teen Scottie (Amara Miller) and teenage Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), are beyond his command. Adding to Matt's responsibilities, as well as providing a corollary to the personal history upended by Alexandra's news of Elizabeth's infidelity, is the decision he must make, as head of the King family trust, to sell or bequest a large tract of beachfront property. The two narrative strands entwine when Matt discovers that his wife's lover is actually vacationing adjacent to the very spot where he will be meeting with his clan to finalize the disposition of their legacy. Cosmic coincidence or crafty plot contrivance? Slowly rolling downhill, The Descendants takes a turn or two but is basically always en route toward the reconciliation that's a foregone conclusion.
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