Toronto 2011: Clooney’s ‘Descendants’ is fall’s big wild card


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George Clooney is a favorite son on the fall film-festival circuit, as director Alexander Payne wryly noted when he introduced his new movie that stars the A-lister by telling the Toronto International Film Festival crowd, ‘Welcome to the George Clooney Film Festival.’

But Clooney’s box-office and awards upside are more of a 50-50 proposition. Over the last few years, he’s had roughly as many autumnal disappointments (‘The Men Who Stare at Goats,’ ‘The American’) as winners (‘Up in the Air,’ ‘Michael Clayton’).


For the second time in three years, Clooney has a pair of films at the Toronto confab, the political drama ‘The Ides of March’ (which he also directed) and Payne’s family tale ‘The Descendants.’

The latter could prove a particularly telling case. Playing a single father to two outspoken young daughters, the famously single Clooney is deviating from the lone-wolf type he seems to have favored in every one of his last half-dozen roles (though he’s plenty isolated here too). When asked at the premiere screening Saturday night what it was like to play a family man, he quipped, ‘He’s not a very good family man. So, perfect for me.’

As this blog and others have written, ‘The Descendants’ is a low-key drama about Matt King (Clooney), a Hawaii man whose life is thrown into disarray when his wife goes into a coma and he must learn how to parent for the first time. King is also dealing with news of his wife’s affair and a tricky business decision that could turn his family and/or the entire state of Hawaii against him.

If that sounds like the problems of the middle-age males of American literary fiction, it should: Payne and his writing partners based their script on Kaui Hart Hemmings’ debut novel, which is concerned with the tenuous glue that holds together the life of seemingly successful men and what happens when that glue becomes unstuck.

The question for this movie, and Clooney, thus becomes: Will audiences like seeing the actor as a frustrated and not always capable type, as opposed to the angsty but hyper-capable sort he perfected in hits ‘Up in the Air’ and ‘Michael Clayton’?

Equally interesting will be whether audiences again spark to the work of Payne, who in the last decade has fashioned an anomalously successful career making upmarket literary dramas (‘Sideways,’ ‘About Schmidt’). But previous Payne adaptations struck more dramatic and comedic high notes; no matter how serious its subject matter, ‘The Descendants’ revels in a kind of mellow Hawaii vibe, from its island-music score to its general pace. Even Payne’s trademark comedy-laced confrontation scene plays in a lower register than it did in ‘About Schmidt’ or ‘Sideways.’


Complicating the picture is a shift in audience tastes. In the post-’Black Swan’ age, the art house crowd looks a lot different than the audience that scarfed up Payne’s previous gentle dramedies.

‘The Descendants’ is the first movie in seven years for the helmer of ‘Sideways’ (like this film, from grownup-film specialists Fox Searchlight) and the scrutiny this fall could land on him as much as it does on his movie or his star.

The director didn’t go out of his way to make a strong first impression Saturday night. Asked a legitimate question at the post-screening Q&A by Toronto fest co-director Cameron Bailey about his interest in flawed male characters, the director, in an exchange that got testy and awkward, took unexpected umbrage. ‘What movies are not about people with flaws in their lives?’ he shot back.

Maybe so. The challenge for Fox Searchlight will be to convince people that these particular flaws are worthy of their dollars, and their votes.


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-- Steven Zeitchik