In this age of the franchise as king, George Clooney remains one of the few old-fashioned movie stars we have left. Yet his effortlessly easy charisma and broad, easy-going appeal mean that so much of his best work often flies under the radar – at least to begin with, anyway. Far less rabid than Deniro of old, and nowhere near as boisterous as Pacino of his heyday, the only thing showy about Clooney is his demonstrating just how unshowy he is. Case in point this subtle, tragicomic adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ deeply heartfelt novel of grief that teams Clooney up with another of modern cinema's great enigmas, Alexander Payne, a man with a small but distinguished canon of work comprised of very funny comedies that don’t ever seem to contain any actual jokes.
Clooney’s quietly nuanced, very human rendering of Matt King, a protagonist who is not exactly sympathetic in these hard times – a wealthy, but thrifty attorney whose chief burden, descended as he is from native Hawaiian royalty, is how best to capitalize on the multi-million-dollar parcel of land of which he is the sole trustee – is guaranteed another Oscar nod. Yet it’s hard to say that he doesn’t work for it, charged with resolving gut-wrenching feelings of betrayal over recently discovered infidelity on the part of his wife, who currently lies in a coma from which we quickly learn she will not wake.
Creative writing 101 tells us that the best way to inform a chosen theme and develop a character is to give them some tough, dramatic choices, the pursuit of which tells the audience who the character is. So, not only is it brave of the author to deviate so drastically from that tried and trusted formula by firmly hacking off at the knees any and all chance at direct reconciliation, but also fresh for the audience who are left to ponder the story’s ultimate destination with the knowledge that the most obvious is walled off entirely.
What The Descendants offers – aside from another of Payne’s now trademark hapless, middle-aged fellas as a fountain of impotent frustration – is the notion that while choices inform who we are, it’s often those decisions that are ultimately made for us that inform us the most. Matt’s wife’s accident was just tragic circumstance, and he never asked to be born into a line blessed with ownership of land the sale of which – or not – will impact the entire tiny island of Kaua’I so dramatically. Forced to confront not only the legacy of his laissez-faire attitude towards parenting in the shape of his troubled daughters, but the realization that his wife’s wandering eye and friends' wandering loyalty translate into a shitty, neglectful husband, Clooney’s seductive tones become accusatory and his doe eyes set to a default look of confused shame.
So much of Payne’s picturesque dramedy confounds expectation; from the disdain with which the locals seem to regard paradise, to the idiot daughter’s boyfriend turning sage, to the casting choices: Judy Greer as a sexy milf, and Matthew Lillard in a rare straight role as the wife’s lover, the only viable target for King’s ire. Standing out from a solid support cast that also includes the likes of Beau Bridges, is Shailene Woodley as the rebellious eldest daughter turned ally, who dutifully helps her dad by saying and doing all the things that he is expected to rise above. Between Woodley’s breakout turn, and yet another solid masterclass from the most redoubtable actor working today, The Descendants shines through it’s gloomy clouds of grief as perhaps the sleeper hit of the winter season.
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