A Hawaiian lawyer's life is turned upside-down when his philandering wife is injured in an accident, forcing him to confront his failures as a husband and father and pull his family together during a distressing period, in this human comedy-drama from the director of "Sideways." The Fox Searchlight release was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won the Oscar for Best Screenplay Adaptation.
By CBSNews.com senior editor David Morgan
MATT KING: "My friends on the mainland think just because I live in Hawai'i, I live in paradise. Like a permanent vacation - we're all just out here drinking mai tais, shaking our hips, and catching waves. Are they nuts? How can they possibly think our families are less screwed up, our heart attacks and cancers less fatal, our grief less devastating? . . .
"For the last 23 days, I've been living in a 'paradise' of IVs and urine bags and endotracheal tubes and six-month-old US magazines. Paradise. Paradise can go **** itself."
-- From the opening narration of "The Descendants"
Matt King (George Clooney) is a lawyer on Oahu who must come to terms with severe life changes following a motorboat accident that leaves his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) in a coma.
The self-described "backup parent" must now fill the role of full-time parent to his two daughters - Scottie, 10, and Alexandra, 16, who has not been on speaking terms with her mother and is now at a boarding school on the Big Island.
MATT KING: "Somehow it feels natural to find a daughter of mine on a different island. A family seems exactly like an archipelago - all part of the same geographic expression but still islands - separate and alone, always drifting slowly apart."
When Matt flies to the Big Island to retrieve Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), he finds her drunk outside her dorm.
We understand this is not the first time Alexandra has been in this condition.
ALEXANDRA: "I have gotten my act together. I was just drinking. I've been doing really well, but nobody ever seems to notice my grades are better, and how I was in that stupid play you guys didn't bother to see. Do you even remember the name? . . . That's what I thought."
Matt's frustration with his daughters - and his incapacity to affect control - create even more tension in the household.
Distraught and confused after hearing the news of her mother's condition, Alexandra escapes into the privacy of the swimming pool, where she screams.
But more pain is expressed in her discussions with her dad, where she finds herself breaking bad news to him: That Elizabeth had been cheating on him prior to her accident.
Matt must also face the anger of Scott (Robert Forster), who blames his son-in-law for his daughter's accident. A former drill instructor, Scott is not averse to punching out whomever he deems deserving - though at least he is considerate enough to warn his target in advance.
While feeling a need to keep her father balanced, Alexandra also encourages Matt's desire to track down the cuckold.
Concurrent with this health crisis is a critical real estate deal for which Matt - as controller of a family land trust extending several generations to his great-great-grandmother Princess Margaret Ke'alohilani - must soon decide on a buyer for 35,000 undeveloped acres of a pristine Hawaiian landscape.
Everywhere Matt goes, it seems, someone has an opinion about the "inheritor" of Hawaiian land, and the sale - a responsibility he has grown to resent: "Soon my daughters and I can just be normal citizens like everybody else, and these dead people will stop controlling our lives."
A plethora of anxious cousins and extended family members tries to influence and cajole Matt in his decision, which could mean a major windfall for them.
On the trail of Elizabeth's lover, Matt, his daughters, and Alexandra's boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) fly to Kauai, to ... what? Matt himself isn't sure, except that Elizabeth's condition gives an added urgency to every decision, every step and every possible consequence. At the very least he believes he must inform the cuckold of what happened, only to gauge his reaction - does he really love her?
As if the land trust sale weren't difficult enough, a wrench is thrown into Matt's decision when he learns that man with whom Elizabeth was cheating is a realtor - who may have been influence peddling while sleeping with his wife.
Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, "The Descendants" captures the messy complexities of families that are emotionally charged by feelings of betrayal, inadequacy and rejection - and the efforts made to repair bonds that have been injured.
It also shows the importance of extending one's sense of responsibility for reasons that go beyond self - to family, to generations long past and those still to come - and the selfish reasons for sometimes needing to act selflessly.
Alexander Payne received Academy Award nominations for co-producing, directing and co-writing "The Descendants." Previously he was nominated for writing and directing "Sideways" (2004), and for the adapted screenplay of "Election" (1999).
Golden Globe Award-winner George Clooney won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for "Syriana," and was nominated for Best Actor for "Michael Clayton" and "Up in the Air." In addition, he was nominated for directing "Good Night, and Good Luck," and for writing "Good Night ..." and this year's "The Ides of March."
Shailene Woodley ("The District," "The O.C.," "Crossing Jordan") was 18 when she shot "The Descendants," her first major film. "I've never played a 17-year-old going through her angsty period, who had to kind of come into her own, so that was exciting," she told CBS News.
She said working with George Clooney "definitely raised the bar" for her.
"He is the most generous person I've ever met in my entire life. And you don't hear of him as being philanthropic; you hear of him as being a prankster - which he is - but he is just so giving, and he never stops giving, and it is just so amazing."
After auditioning 300 girls for the role of Scottie King and not finding the right actress, Payne received an email with a videotaped audition from a nine-year-old newcomer from Pacific Grove, Calif., with virtually no previous acting experience. Payne said Amara Miller had an instinctive feel for the demands of the unformed yet independent young girl. "About a minute into [the video] I just said, 'Oh that's her.' I don't need to see her. I knew that she was the one. I
just knew she would show up. And like many things in life, she did, but in the most
Comic actor Matthew Lillard (he played Shaggy in the "Scooby-Doo" movies) was surprised when he realized he'd gotten the role of George Clooney's wife's lover: "I walked in, and there were like five great looking guys waiting to read, all of them with that California movie star thing - strong chins and pecs and biceps. I thought to myself, There's just no way."
Judy Greer (Julie Speer) is a veteran of such TV series as "Arrested Development," "Californication" and "Mad Love."
Beau Bridges ("The Fabulous Baker Boys") plays Matt's cousin Hugh, who is eager for Matt to make the "right" decision on the land sale, the sooner the better.
Writer/director/producer Alexander Payne, actress Shailene Woodley and actor George Clooney arrive for the premiere of "The Descendants" at AMPAS Samuel Goldwyn Theater on Nov. 15, 2011, in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Actresses Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley arrive for the premiere of "The Descendants" at AMPAS Samuel Goldwyn Theater on Nov. 15, 2011, in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Actor George Clooney and girlfriend Stacy Keibler arrive for the official BFI London Film Festival screening of "The Descendants," in London on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011.
Actor Robert Forster arrives to the premiere of Fox Searchlight's "The Descendants" at AMPAS Samuel Goldwyn Theater on Nov. 15, 2011, in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Foster's credits include "The Stalking Moon," "Medium Cool," "Justine," "The Don is Dead," "The Black Hole," "The Delta Force," "Jackie Brown," "Mulholland Drive," and "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle," as well as the TV series Banyon," "Nakia" and "Heroes."
Actress Judy Greer arrives to the premiere of Fox Searchlight's "The Descendants" at AMPAS Samuel Goldwyn Theater on Nov. 15, 2011, in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Best Supporting Actress winner Shailene Woodley attends the National Board of Review awards gala at Cipriani 42nd Street on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012 in New York.
George Clooney poses in the press room with the Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Drama award for "The Descendants," at the 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 15, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California.
George Clooney, winner of the Best Actor Award for "The Descendants," and Viola Davis, winner of the Best Actress Award for "The Help," in the press room during the 17th Annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards held at The Hollywood Palladium on January 12, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.
Jim Rash, Alexander Payne, and Nat Faxon accept the best screenplay award for "The Descendants" at the Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012, in Santa Monica, Calif.
George Clooney and Stacy Keibler arrive on the red carpet for the 84th Annual Academy Awards on February 26, 2012 in Hollywood, California.
With the provocative Angelina Jolie presenting the Best Screenplay Adaptation Oscar, one of the trio of winners for "The Descendants," Jim Rash, overtly copied Jolie's stance.
Sharing the award with Rash (if not his pose) was Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon.
Backstage, Rash (who also appears on the NBC TV series "Community") said, "I just saw her pose and I thought, 'You know what? We have exactly the same legs! And I wanted to show everyone what it meant. It was a loving tribute!"