On screen or off, George Clooney always has that trademark suave air about him. He’s a debonair ringleader who organizes big casino heists (Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen), a smooth talker who flies around the country firing people (Up in the Air), an escaped convict searching for hidden treasure (O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Never a hair out of place, especially in that last movie. Remember his penchant for Dapper Dan hair cream?
But The Descendants offers a different view of Mr. Clooney — a vulnerable father of two who’s piecing life back together while his wife lies comatose in a hospital bed following a boating accident. Clooney’s character, Matt King, has always been “the back-up parent,” the one who’s never around long enough to know what kind of ice cream his youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) likes, or what his teenager Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) does while away at boarding school.
And it’s just the sort of role that will turn Clooney into a true movie star, not just another pretty face among the Brad Pitts and Matt Damons of Hollywood, not just the guy who always takes the big, high-profile roles. Or maybe The Descendants IS Clooney’s high-profile role in its regular-guy simplicity.
You can tell he’s sort of been heading that way in the past few years, reaching out for different types of roles. In The American, he played a cold-hearted killer (did anyone like him in that role? I didn’t). And in The Ides of March, Governor Mike Morris may have been eloquent on the surface, but he was swimming an ocean of dirty politics.
But I’m not sure how much of an argument I can make here, considering that Clooney’s movie career started out with gigs on The Facts of Life, Baby Talk and Roseanne. I guess he’s been a renaissance man from the start, willing to try anything to further his craft.
The Descendants is a superb movie. As a bonus, we get to see the lush Hawaiian islands of O’ahu and Kaua’i, where it was filmed (there’s a subplot about Clooney’s family selling off a huge piece of prime real estate). And if you’re worried about bawling your eyes out, I can tell you that I usually find something to cry about in every movie, but this one didn’t strike me that way. Part of it’s because we never really get to know Matt’s wife, played by Patricia Hastie, who spends most of the movie in a coma.
The Descendants also has enough humor to keep it from getting too maudlin. Shailene Woodley is wonderful as Matt’s older daughter. Finally, she gets a chance to shine beyond her one-note character on The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Amara Miller is just as wonderful as Matt’s younger daughter. They seem like a real family you’d know from the neighborhood.
And special mention must be made of Nick Krause, who plays Alexandra’s friend Sid. He turned what could have been a cliched teenage-slacker role into something much more meaningful. There are no stereotypes in The Descendants. Everyone seems like a real person, doing the best they can with the circumstances they’re given.
The Descendants is rated R for language, including some sexual references. It’s directed by Alexander Payne, who produced Sideways and Cedar Rapids, and based on the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Expect the movie to score big this awards season. It’s already been nominated for five Golden Globes, and has another 15 wins and 34 nominations.
Read Melanie Votaw’s coverage of The Descendants at the New York Film Festival.
Other Reviews of The Descendants:
Atlantic City Weekly, Lori Hoffman: “The Descendants hums along fueled by the imperfections that make us all human, while trying to uncover moments of grace and wisdom despite those imperfections.”
IndieWire, Leonard Maltin: “The challenge in describing the film is that it doesn’t neatly fit into any pigeonhole. It’s a serious movie that happens to have a sense of humor, because Payne and his collaborators see the absurdity in everyday existence.”
PopMatters, Cynthia Fuchs: “As ten-year-old Scottie tries to sort out the specter of her mother now, inert and silent following a water-skiing accident, she faces questions she can’t begin to articulate.”
Times-Picayune, Mike Scott: “A grown-up, emotionally complex film buoyed by Clooney’s wonderfully nuanced performance.”
Film.com, Eric D. Snider: “This mature, well-acted dramatic comedy is deeply satisfying, maybe even cathartic.”
Entertainment Weekly, Owen Glieberman: “Another beautifully chiseled piece of filmmaking — sharp, funny, generous, and moving — that writes its own rules as much as About Schmidt or Sideways did.”