Film Review: George Clooney plays a man waking up to his life in 'The Descendants'

The Descendants

Directed by Alexander Payne.


Alexander Payne's new film, The Descendants, already getting Oscar nods, handles what could be soapy or wrenching subject matter with a skilled sense of the inherent humor that makes life livable, even at its most trying. We feel comfortable with these people after seeing them in some uncomfortable situations.

George Clooney's Matt King is the kind of guy who only begins to pay attention to the people around him when things get tough: his wife (Patricia Hastie) is in a coma and isn't going to recover; he has to bring together his daughters — one, the teen (Shailene Woodley) is well on her way to being alienated from both parents, and the pre-teen (Amara Miller) is acting up in antisocial, possibly racist, ways. He has to decide whether to sell off a huge tract of primeval Kauai real estate, entrusted to his family via their lineage from a royal Hawaiian ancestor. And he has to decide how he feels about his wife's ongoing affair with a real estate agent (Matthew Lillard), also married with children and looking to reap big benefits from that birthright sale. Does he want to beat the crap out of the guy, out him to his wife (Judy Greer), or simply give him a chance to say goodbye to the mistress who may have loved him?

All these complications riff off each other as elements in a bad waking dream for Matt. Clooney plays it straight, and that makes it funny. As "the descendants," the people we see in this sprawling, cloudy, kitschily contemporary Hawaii are in charge of the fate of the world left to them — here symbolized by the virgin land not yet converted to charmless hotels and golf courses. We see a world of bad marriages, bad parenting, arrested personal development, self-deceptions and delusions, and in the midst of it all moments of honesty, where characters take the measure of themselves and of each other.

The film requires actors who can turn from petulance to pathos, from fatuous to forthright, from goofy to vulnerable, and the fine cast delivers — particularly Greer's appealing decency, Woodley's guarded self-possession, and Robert Forster's flinty pain, as Matt's father-in-law. Clooney's two monologues directed at his comatose wife are good work. Elsewhere he's the kind of dad who can talk to his kids when he tries, but there's also a steady reserve that makes Matt a hard guy to really like. Yet we're glad to see him find a little self-knowledge — of both his limitations and his capacities — that provides the film's pay-off.

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