On the face of it Matt King, George Clooney, has an enviable life. A beautiful wife with two beautiful daughters and they all live on the paradise island of Hawaii. At the beginning of the film we are disabused of all of the reasons to envy King. He soon tells us that Hawaii is not the paradise we think it is. Further to this his wife has a speed boat accident and goes into a coma and he then finds out from one of his daughters that she’s been having an affair. He discovers as well that his daughters have rather large behaviour issues, possibly caused by him being in his own mind ‘the back-up parent’. One of the themes of the film then is how the family, King’s descendants, deal with this situation.
We also see how King has to deal with his cousins; some of them broke, in formulating a potential billion dollar land development that would enrich all of them. They are descendants of their pioneering ancestors, who somehow gained a large part of one of the Hawaiian Islands.
The title is explored again when we look at how far his family has descended from a noble and honourable past. His children are dysfunctional without proper parental supervision and his cousins value their own financial wealth over the wishes of the rest of the islanders. At times we see King realise this and also how far he’s descended in a way without realising it.
This is a common theme for Alexander Payne. In Election, Sideways and About Schmidt we are given many examples of male selfishness, hubris, the decline (or descent) and what men can do to redeem themselves. Usually the films are immaculately crafted and plotted. To my mind this film is not immaculate. The performances though are excellent George Clooney is marvellous and Shailene Woodley excels as his eldest daughter. Disappointingly this film shows a slight decline in Payne’s career in comparison to his previous highs, maybe he’s the ultimate descendant.