Is George Clooney for real? Does he not continuously prove one can improve upon perfection? In director/writer Alexander Payne’s new film, “The Descendants,” Clooney’s performance doesn’t seem like one at all. It feels as though you’re living in his skin.
The film opens with a huge smile emanating from a woman’s face. It’s a brief shot, and we soon learn that the woman is Matt King’s (Clooney) wife, who’s now comatose following a boating accident. Father to two daughters, Matt admits he’s always been “the back-up parent, the understudy.” And his children have paid the price.
It gets worse. Blindsided when he discovers that his wife isn’t going to make it, Matt informs his 17-year-old daughter, Alex (Shailene Woodley). She, in turn, informs Dad that Mom’s been cheating on him. They are gloomy revelations, which, in the hands of the talented Payne, become a springboard for some hilarious situations as the film unfolds.
In an unlikely move, Alex, who has little regard for her father, teams up with him to find the boyfriend. In their quest, the two develop a mutual respect for one another. Matt realizes just how much he loved his wife as his daughters grow close.
“The Descendants” is full of little twists. Matt is the descendant of one of the first, white land-owning families in Hawaii. In charge of a trust that includes 25,000 acres of spectacular virgin beach, he’s at odds with some greedy cousins as to its development. When he uncovers a link to his wife’s lover and the land deal, Matt sees everything in a different light.
Payne is an expert at accessing the essence of his characters by casting his films wisely (think: “Sideways” and “About Schmidt”). In “The Descendants,” the cast is simply standout. Small parts by Robert Forster, Beau Bridges and Judy Greer leave lasting impressions. Alex’s stoner boyfriend (Nick Krause) and feisty, foul-mouthed little sister (Amara Miller) provide a significant amount of snickers. But it’s Clooney, in his best performance ever, who owns this delightful film.
Payne has the unique ability to make his audience laugh at the most inopportune moments and cry when it’s least expected. In “The Descendants,” he makes us truly care about the connections of his characters ... because they’re just like us.
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