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While watching The Descendants, the new film from writer/director Alexander Payne, a thought occurred to me: it’s rare that we get to see George Clooney cry. The actor has made a career of playing strong, independent men-- he's almost never a parent onscreen-- and because of this The Descendants comes across as a challenge for Clooney, but one that he knocks out of the park.
Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings and co-written by Payne, Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, the movie tells the story of Matt King (Clooney), a hard-working lawyer with a wife (Patricia Hastie) and two daughters (Amara Miller, Shailene Woodley) living in Oahu, Hawaii. While working on a deal to sell 25,000 acres of property left to him by his ancestors, his spouse is involved in a boating accident and is left in a permanent coma. While he continues to try and choose a buyer for the land and figure out how he is going to manage as a single father, his oldest daughter drops a bombshell on him: his wife was having an affair.
Clooney’s turn in The Descendants may very well be the best of his career. While he is one of the biggest stars in the universe, you only see the character and the character’s issues, not the actor himself. As unbelievable as it may seem that any woman would cheat on George Clooney, we see the character’s flaws – mainly his obsession with work – and how he interacts with those close to him, and we don’t sympathize with the wife’s actions, but we do understand them. The most developed relationship in the film is the one between Clooney and King’s two daughters, Scotty and Alexandra. A great deal of the film’s plot involves the family trying to hunt the mother’s lover down, and in that time we see a true bond build between King and his children (it doesn’t hurt that both Woodley and Miller are brilliant as well). As a trio there’s a terrific mix of tension and pained love that would never work had Clooney not been able to shed his public persona. Lucky for us, he does.
Because the movie is set in Hawaii it’s only fair that the audience expect stunning direction and photography and Payne doesn’t disappoint. Reuniting with cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who worked with Payne to find the beauty of California wine country in 2004’s Sideways, the filmmaker captures the epic splendor of the paradise island state. The film benefits from being seen on the big screen, if not just for the scene in which Matt King and his family look out onto the aforementioned 25,000 acres, which is so stunning it makes your eyes bug out a little. But what’s fascinating about the approach is that it doesn’t hide the “normal” side of Hawaii. Fitting in with the opening narration that explains that life on the island is no different than life on the mainland, the camera captures the sandy beaches and blue skies, but also gives us a peek into the lesser-seen urban areas, which actually gives the location an interesting depth.
What ties it all together is The Descendants’ magnificent script, which seamlessly blends comedy and drama, in true Alexander Payne fashion. The film is laced with poignant moments – most of which involve the family’s complicated relationship with the mom – but seconds later Scotty is flipping off her dad or Alexandra’s boyfriend, played by Nick Krause, is saying something breathtakingly dumb. The real accomplishment, however, is that the film never feels uneven and earns every laugh and every tear. These are characters that are both suffering from and trying to overcome a painful loss. In that situation there is always going to be ups and downs, and Payne, Rash and Faxon’s script masters it.
While not without its flaws – the clunky expository narration at the beginning of the film is particularly irksome – The Descendantsis the phenomenal sum of extraordinary parts. It’s been a seven year gap between feature films for Alexander Payne, but his newest proves that he hasn’t missed a beat.