Film Review: The Descendants

It’s always nice to find a cultural oasis amid the plethora of remakes and formulaic junk pouring out of Hollywood but when the oasis is provided by writer/director Alexander Payne and the setting is the idyllic Hawaiian capital of Honolulu, it’s a veritable cause for joy.

Seven years have passed since Payne’s previous film, the highly successful Sideways, and it’s almost a decade since About Schmidt gave Jack Nicholson the opportunity to step down from his megastar pedestal to play a recently retired widower undertaking a road trip in what proved to be a masterful study of loneliness and old age.

In The Descendants, George Clooney is provided with a similar opportunity to break with his roguish, eternally youthful screen persona and do for middle age what Jack did for the over sixties. And I’m happy to report the opportunity isn’t squandered.

Clooney plays Matt Clark, a rich, workaholic lawyer based in Honolulu, with a wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), whose aversion to domestic tedium leads her to adrenaline-inducing pursuits (among other things). After a speedboat accident leaves her badly injured and comatose in the hospital, Matt is forced to suspend his daily routine to care for the couple’s youngest child, 10-year old Scottie (Amara Miller) and later their 17-year old semi-delinquent daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) who has been away at boarding school.

Having been told that Elizabeth will never emerge from her coma, Matt is forced to honour the terms of her living will and disconnect her support system. Before doing so, however, revelations about Elizabeth, made by Alexandra, compel Matt to enter on a journey, both physical and emotional, in search of the truth. Accompanied by his dysfunctional daughters and Alexandra’s well-meaning but dim friend, Sid (Nick Krause).

The Descendants

Besides being preoccupied with his offspring, Matt also has to deal with the legacy of his forebears. He is trustee of the family property, consisting of 25,000 acres of untrammelled land on the island of Kauai, and despite the opposition of residents, it is the intention of Matt and his cabal of cousins to sell the land for development.

The two competing concerns soon become intertwined, ultimately providing Matt with a solution to both dilemmas.

It may not sound like much fun but there are plenty of laughs along the way. Most of them arising from disarmingly subtle situations. There are no pratfalls. No absurd situations. It’s character-based humour and the nearest it gets to broad comedy is when Sid’s social ineptitude leads him into trouble.

Despite the presence of a character who spends all but one brief sequence wired-up to a life support machine, it is never downbeat. Even in some of the more emotionally taut sequences, humour is never far below the surface. The younger cast members are all excellent with Woodley making the most of her lion’s share and there are even opportunities for scene-stealing appearances by old stagers Robert Forster as Elizabeth’s garrulous father and Beau Bridges as a senior member of the King family.

To some extent Clooney plays it almost entirely straight, reacting to the fiery temperament of his eldest daughter, the social bungling of Sid and the fearless, foul-mouthed off-handedness of Scottie. But those reactions are all exceptionally well-judged. He gives a delightfully understated performance.

Some actors have to wait a long time for the perfect part to come their way. Even some of the industry’s biggest stars, those who generally speaking tend to ‘get it right’ most of the time, can land a part so ideally suited to them that it becomes career-defining. Almost as though they were born to play it.

Think of Jeff Bridges. In a career spanning forty years he has shown immense versatility, notching-up innumerable fine portrayals, but his performance in Crazy Heart is so perfectly suited to his talents (including his guitar-playing), it would be impossible to visualise anybody else playing the ageing, alcoholic country musician.

Then there’s Mickey Rourke who was estranged from the Hollywood establishment for many years but managed to land the part of a lifetime as Randy “the Ram” in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. That big, swollen face and muscular physique were perfectly utilised for the first and what will probably prove to have been the only time. It is doubtful he will ever turn in a better performance.

While preparing to see The Descendants, indications were that Clooney may have pulled off the same kind of career-defining performance. The amount of awards he had bagged already and the likelihood of his adding a second Academy Award this month would suggest so. I am inclined to say he has.

Reaching middle-age can be a daunting prospect for the Hollywood star but with his trademark grey hair, symmetrical face and chiselled features, continuing to play the romantic lead past the age of fifty is hardly a problem for Clooney. However, in recent years he has shown an increasing versatility and in The Descendants he convinces in the part of a husband and father going through domestic and professional upheaval. He deserves credit for allowing himself to appear middle-aged and human (Richard Gere take note though I suppose it’s a bit too late!).

Witness the scene quite early on in which he makes a precarious, sandal-clad dash through the streets (a scene made use of in the abysmal trailer to resemble some kind of race against time). In the cinema it drew the biggest laugh all evening and it had everything to do with simple audience identification (i.e. he runs like their father/husband).

The Descendants is a mature and intelligent film, containing Clooney’s best work to date and I dare say he’s worthy of an Oscar. If his performance doesn’t quite reach the heights attained by his older contemporaries above mentioned, that’s hardly a criticism. The part fits him like a glove and should prove to many (as it did to me) that you don’t have to be middle-aged and female to appreciate his appeal.