After Election (1999) and About Schmidt (2002), both movies set in Nebraska, Alexander Payne moved westward to California for Sideways (2005), and then westward further still to Hawaii with his latest, The Descendants (2011), based on Kaui Hart Hemmings's novel of the same name. But this is not a clichéd paradise of young surfers as so many movies set in the 50th state of America are: early on, shots of down and outs, a man in a wheelchair, and elderly folk make this quite clear. And as Matt King (George Clooney) says over these images, the reality is a little different from the outsiders' picture of Hawaiians 'sipping Mai Tais, shaking our hips, and catching waves'. George's wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is in a coma following a powerboat accident, and George's life is now 'IVs and urine bags and tracheal tubes. Paradise? Paradise can go fuck itself!'
Ironically, the very first scene of the movie is a happy water-skiing one off Waikiki beach, Honolulu, but this is before the (unseen) accident. Elizabeth will never come out of the coma, and her life support machine will be disconnected. First, though, her friends have to be gathered so they can say goodbye to the woman who can't say goodbye back. That should also include Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), the man Matt learns Elizabeth has been having an affair with.
And Matt is to learn a lot more in a short space of time: he can't undo the damage brought to his marriage by his overworking, but he can undo the damage that he's been doing to his relationships to his precocious daughter Scottie (Amara Miller), and his slightly wild older daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), who's at boarding school on the Big Island.
To complicate things more, Matt's learning curve involves not just the general well-being of himself and his kids, but his family's heritage and the rest of the people in Hawaii: he is the only trustee to 25,000 acres of pristine land on Kauai which is his extended family's birthright, and it would mean megabucks for them if he sold the property, as most of them want him to do. But it would also change Hawaii.
The movie charts Matt's rapid maturity, and the scene before the last is off Waikiki beach again, but this time Matt, Scottie and Alex are throwing Elizabeth's ashes into the Pacific.
The last scene shows the same one-parent family settling down on the sofa together to watch TV.
It's a great pity more Hawaiian movies aren't as mature as this.