George Clooney graces theaters with two new movies. The first, Ides of March, is a political drama directed by Clooney, where he shares the spotlight with an ensemble cast. In Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, Clooney shows us another side, without the gloss and refreshingly un-Hollywood.
Clooney plays Matt King, an average and indifferent Hawaii lawyer and landowner. Soft-spoken and humble, he is father to 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and smug, rebellious 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). He is successful and responsible, but hasn’t made any meaningful connections with his family.
Matt’s wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) lies comatose in a hospital bed following a tragic accident. The heartbreaking decision not to prolong her life goes to Matt. He is about to make a deal with developers to sell his family’s coastal expanse (gorgeously filmed by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael).
As Matt meets his new responsibilities head on, Alexandra reveals that her mother was having an affair when she had the accident. Matt decides that Brian (Matthew Lillard), his wife’s lover, should say goodbye as well.
Father and daughters, accompanied by Alexandra’s annoying boyfriend, Sid (Nick Krause), go to face Brian, who stands to make money from Matt’s land deal. Matt meets Brian’s wife (Judy Greer) in front of his beach rental and discovers that they live just next door.
Payne wrote and directed Election (1999), a clever and hilarious look at American politics through the lens of a high school student council election. His next effort, 2002’s About Schmidt, was a quietly emotional yet humorous meditation on ageing. But perhaps his most acclaimed work was 2004’s Sideways, in which two middle-aged men go on a road trip to self-discovery. A theme emerges in Payne’s work, where the characters grapple with new problems and have to find strength within themselves to carry on. The focus on self-discovery is ever-present in Payne’s work as in The Descendants, with flawlessly developed characters that highlight contemporary relationships and dynamics.
Woodley smartly captures the point in life where teenagers lose their angst and tackle reality. Lillard gives his usual awkward performance, but as Brian, who is also in a difficult situation, it works perfectly. Krause is hilarious as Sid, an outspoken and slightly rude stoner type who dispenses wisdom now and then.
The Descendants is an expertly nuanced film and a bit of a tear-jerker without being obvious. Matt’s mission is neither one of redemption or revenge. He, along with Alexandra, must put aside the conflict with each other, with Elizabeth and with Brian and figure out how long they can be in pain until they have no choice but to move on. The movie is a lesson on maturity – life eventually calls on everyone to learn it.