Honolulu lawyer Matt King (George Clooney), prosperous scion of a Hawaiian family claiming descent from American missionaries and Polynesian royalty, is humbled by a flurry of body blows. "Paradise can go fuck itself," he declares in voice-over. A waterskiing mishap has landed Matt's wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), in a coma. His two daughters, the preteen Scottie (Amara Miller) and typical teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), are beyond his command, with Alexandra in thrall to a smirking stoner boyfriend (Nick Krause) and in possession of information to further rock her father's world: "Dad, Mom was cheating on you!"
On top of that agony, Matt is unfairly abused by his irascible, hard-nosed father-in-law (Robert Forster), who blames him for Elizabeth's accident. Adding to Matt's responsibilities, as well as providing a corollary to the personal history upended by Elizabeth's infidelity, is the decision he must make, as head of the King family trust, to sell or bequest a large tract of unspoiled beachfront property — primeval Hawaii. The two narrative strands entwine when Matt discovers that his wife's lover (Matthew Lillard), a glad-handing realtor, is actually vacationing with his wife (Judy Greer) and kids adjacent to the Edenic spot where Matt will be meeting with his clan, most memorably his dissolute cousin (Beau Bridges), to finalize the disposition of their legacy. Cosmic coincidence or crafty plot contrivance?
Despite the large and talented cast that Payne has assembled, The Descendants revolves entirely around its supremely amiable star. But even with the crutch provided by an insistent voice-over, Clooney's part is underwritten. Moreover, the actor's own blessings are so evident that it's hard to accept him as the beleaguered (if fabulously wealthy) Everyman that the movie demands he be. With supporting characters called upon to react toward him or develop around him as necessary in a given situation, the narrative feels less like an unfolding novel than like an inflated short story. Slowly rolling downhill, The Descendants takes a turn or two but is basically always en route toward the reconciliation that's a foregone conclusion.
Matt, whose main defect is his passivity, starts out begging for sympathy — but his circumstances are far more compelling than he. And despite a gesture or two toward Honolulu's downside, Hawaii still feels like heaven on Earth.