As I received the opening images of The Descendants, I leaned over, looked at Kate (my wife) and spoke a truth we both already knew: “She’s a goner.”
Alexander Payne opens The Descendants with Elizabeth King enjoying the waves of the Pacific Ocean by boat. It follows, however, with Mike King [George Clooney] attempting to navigate his wife’s coma (the result of that opening joyride), his two adolescent daughters adolescent-ness, and his large extended family as they try to make a major decision together.
Nothing in this film seems like it couldn’t be a part of your life. Payne is able to take Hawaiian locations and make them feel like your hometown instead of a picture in a timeshare brochure. This is really the heart of the film—a life presented for us to see that hasn’t been airbrushed or Photoshopped. We’re invited to see how the broken pieces of each character have a genesis—how we are all descendants of our past experiences.
Clooney gives Bill Murray a run for his money when it comes to acting with just his eyes. Much of the film has the camera tight on Clooney’s face. And while that may seem like a way to play up the handsome George in yet another leading role, it’s not. Here Clooney simply plays a guy trying to figure out life as it bounces over the unpredictable waves.
But as we watch Mike King awaken from his emotional coma – just as his wife forever fades into her physical one – we witness what it looks like to live life again and start fresh. The Descendants invites us all to consider the comas we’re living in. It aims to help us open our eyes by sitting, calmly, next to our beds, slowly rubbing our hands and repeating our names.