Just because he lives in Hawaii, don’t think he’s in paradise, Matt King (George Clooney) warns us. No one is immune to life. The first Alexander Payne film since “Sideways” gives us another damaged hero at a crossroads and as the King whose crown lies very uneasily on his head Clooney gives his most vulnerable and sensitive performance.
Matt’s wife Elizabeth, glimpsed briefly but vibrantly as she is out boating, is in a coma following an accident on the water. “If you’re doing this to get my attention,” he says to himself as much as to her, “it’s working.” All of a sudden he has to pay attention to a lot of things. He’s the one who gets called in to school when his 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) brings in photographs of her mother in a coma for show and tell and the one who has to drive her to apologize after she insults a classmate via text. “I’m the back-up parent,” he tells us, “the understudy.” He was. Now he’s first-string and the game is on the line.
Matt and his family live on his income as a lawyer but everyone knows that he has inherited land of almost unimaginable value and that he is about to decide whether he will sell it for a lot of money or for you-can’t-count-that-high money. The land is owned equally by Matt and his many cousins, all descendants (hence the title) of Hawaiian royalty and the son of missionaries. For legal reasons they cannot continue to hold it indefinitely. For financial reasons, the poorer relatives are pressing to make a deal. But Matt is the sole trustee. He has the authority to decide, and is trying to do what is best for everyone.
He impulsively takes Scottie to pick up his older daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), who has been away at boarding school because of problems with drugs and overall bad behavior. When they arrive, she is out after curfew, drunk, and hostile. At home, she tells him why she was so angry at her mother — Elizabeth was having an affair. And the doctor tells Matt that Elizabeth is deteriorating and there is no hope.
Matt begins to understand how little he knew and how little he has control over. He is clear, methodical, and deliberate on removing Elizabeth from life support, informing her brusque father (an excellent Robert Forster), her mother with dementia (Barbara L. Southern), and their friends and family about what is going on and urging them to visit her to say goodbye. He brings depositions to Elizabeth’s bedside so he can keep working. But in other areas he goes on instinct and impulse, taking Scottie, Alex, and Alex’s dim-witted, awkward boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) to track down Elizabeth’s lover, all of them more sure that they need to do it than they are sure what they will do when they find him.
Alexander Payne (“Election” and “Sideways”) has a gift for life’s messiness, the mash-ups of pain, humor, anger, terror, and longing that collide in the midst of big moments and domestic dailiness. A man wants to get somewhere urgently so finds himself running in shoes that slip and with lungs that no longer let him forget he is getting older. A thoughtless teenager says the wrong thing to a tough old man and gets popped in the eye. There is an awkward encounter with the man who drove the boat in the accident (played by an actor who looks like he has lived his whole life on the beach because it is surfing champion Laird Hamilton).
But moments of grace that come from the wrong people and at the wrong time can still brighten spirits. Payne is also an actor’s director who has consistently given underrated performers a chance to show greater depth and breadth. This film is filled with beautiful performances from Clooney, Woodley, Forster, Matthew Lillard, Beau Bridges, and, as a character who does not even appear until about 3/4 of the way into the movie, the always-wonderful Judy Greer. Too often relegated to best-friend roles for whatever Jennifer and Jessica are in the latest forgettable romantic comedy, Greer is an actress of impeccable honesty and timing. At first her character seems like a nice person who has never needed or wanted to be anything else. But then Greer brings to the small but essential role a dignity and resolve that are unexpectedly touching.
There is a lot of crying in this movie, and not movie crying with one perfect sparkling tear welling up in the corner of one perfect eye. There is some messy, ugly crying. And there is messy, ugly behavior. This is a terrible, painful situation and people are fraught and scared and angry. Matt tells Elizabeth that even in a coma she can still be difficult. But he finds his way to some clarity about some of the problems that were making him feel powerless. And we recognize that acknowledging the messiness may be the closest to clarity anyone can get.
Parents should know that this film has constant strong and vulgar language used by adults, teens, and child, tragic circumstances (mother in a coma following an accident, discussion of taking her off life support and saying goodbye), and sexual references including adultery.
Family discussion: Why was it important to Matt to find Brian? Why did Julie bring flowers to Elizabeth? What should the family do with the land?
If you like this, try: “Sideways” and “Election” by the same director and the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings