Off To The Oscar Races: Clooney, Cast Ascend in The Descendants
You can’t run away from your problems. But in Alexander Payne’s world you can take them on a road trip. Actually, it’s sort of a requirement. The director’s signature cinematic contrivance, a hallmark in “About Schmidt” and “Sideways” (which garnered him a Best Original Screenplay Oscar) is at play again in his latest, “The Descendants.” This is Payne’s most emotionally authentic film to date. George Clooney, who already nabbed Best Actor honors from the National Board of Review, is also at the top of his emotionally wrought game as a Matt King, a man hit by the thunderbolt of sudden tragedy. Clooney is so unhinged, he even manages to convince us that he’s not as gorgeous as he is ( and he is, even unshaven and clad in an array of bad Hawaiian shirts). That alone could score him Oscar gold.
The story–based in a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings– opens with Matt making promises to his unfaithful and comatose wife ( lingering in limbo following a boating accident). A wealthy, extremely well-landed Hawaiian lawyer, Matt, the self-described “back up parent, the understudy.” must now step up to the parenting plate. And the guy’s got his work cut out for him. Alexandra,the older girl (Shailene Woodley) is 17 and full of teenage rage; she’s the one who fills Dad in on Mom’s infidelity. And let’s just say: she’s not exactly in a forgiving mood. Woodley–who stars in the ABC Family channel’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” delivers a fiercely authentic performance.
The entire supporting cast is, in fact, stellar. Robert Forster is particularly powerful as Elizabeth’s angry, frustrated (and frustrating) father. Amara Miller, as the younger daughter Scottie, acts out with the appropriate amused confusion of a precocious 10 year old. And Beau Bridges as Matt’s shrewd hippie cousin has a beautiful turn in a hideous Hawaiian shirt. But would it have killed Payne to give poor Michael Ontkean ( “Making Love,” “Twin Peaks“) one lousy line?
Matt may be on the precipice of grief, but he’s also in the midst of another family saga. Descended from Hawaiian royalty, Matt seems to be the only one among his clan with a working work ethic; most of the cousins have devolved into a group of layabouts and fortune-hunters. Good thing, then, that he’s the one controlling a family trust that owns 25,000 valuable acres on Kauai, and it’s up to him whether it’s preserved or sold to developers. And–just like in real life–crisis or no, Matt must deal with responsibilities.
And so, Matt and his girls meander along the luscious Hawaiian landscapes, handling both family crisis and pressing family business. They track down his wife’s elusive lover ( the annoyingly affable Matthew Lillard.) They get some unlikely help from Alexandra’s boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause). I wanted to stop and kick the grating stoner out of the car a few times. But Sid turns out to be wiser than he looks. And therein lies the beauty of “The Descendants.” Much of life is awkward and uncomfortable. And we all must face tragedy and crisis. No matter the beauty of the back drop or the people wearing the bad clothes. And we often get through the tough times with the people on hand; and they’re often the most unexpected.
The film’s not perfect. Payne takes his time getting us to fairly predictable destination. But he takes us on charming and heart-wrenching detours. Watch for an awkward scene near the film’s end featuring Judy Greer– as the wife of Matt’s wife’s lover– punctuated with vexatious compassion.
It’s the wayward malaise that makes “The Descendants” so moving. Like life, it is a messy tapestry woven together with the imperfections of humanity. No wonder, along with Clooney’s NBR Award, the film has racked up a slew of nominations from the Golden Globes,Screen Actors Guild and Critics Choice, among others. Trust me: Oscar won’t be far behind.
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