Movies for Grownups: George Clooney Gets Vulnerable in The Descendants

The Descendants: George ClooneyOn 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.

The Descendants: Shailene WoodleyBut 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.”, 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.”


  1. Melanie Avatar

    Sounds like the sort of film that Hollywood needs to make more of, smart, funny and not aimed at 12 year-old boys.

    1. Alexandra Avatar

      Wouldn’t that be great if this movie made lots of $ and Hollywood turned towards more serious topics for grownups?

  2. Sheryl Avatar

    I liked – not loved – the movie. I expected to love it, since George is in it. And like you, I have no problem finding something to cry about…except didn’t shed a tear with this one.

  3. Alexandra Avatar

    I went and saw this movie yesterday on your recommendation. We enjoyed it a lot. I was esp. impressed by the performance from Shailene Woodley as the elder daughter. Also, noted that imminent death from natural cause, NOT murder, was a main theme. Not only was the wife in a comma and allowed to die, according to her final wishes, but her mom had Alzheimer’s. It was refreshing to me to see this reality of every day life reflected in a movie. True, not everyone has a boating accident, but still, usually Hollywood prefers pretend death with guns.

  4. MyKidsEatSquid Avatar

    I’ve heard good reviews about this movie, I’ll add yours to the list. I must admit, I like escapist flicks a bit better than tear jerkers. I’m a sucker for thrillers.

  5. merr Avatar

    I’ve heard from various people with seemingly different tastes that this movie is so good. I want to see it!

  6. Kerry Dexter Avatar

    I’ve heard a number of different opnions about this movie. Thanks for your thoughtful and thorough look at it. Jane.

  7. sarah henry Avatar

    Really, it’s that good? I’ve heard mixed reviews and the trailer did not impress. Plus: Clooney’s hard to believe as a committed family man, given his much-publicized commitmentphobia in real life. Loved him in The Ides of March, though, fab film.

  8. Living Large Avatar

    I’ve always loved George Clooney and just watched him in “One Fine Day” again the other night. Love, that movie, love the man. I also just learned he adopted a shelter dog. Can this man get any sexier!?

  9. merr Avatar

    I just heard the film’s director speaking about this on Fresh Air. I really want to see it for the story and the acting.

  10. Ronald Avatar

    I agree with merr… I also want to see the movie.

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