George Clooney may be the above-the-title star of “The Descendants,” but the movie cannot rightly be called a George Clooney movie. Although he may get nominated and may even win an Oscar for the performance, this movie belongs to his director Alexander Payne, who once again keenly observes the human condition through his camera lens.
Clooney plays Matt King, a work-a-holic Honolulu lawyer, descendant of Hawaiian royal blood and the heir (along with his cousins) of a huge chunk of valuable, unspoiled land. His life is turned upside down when his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie in cinema’s least rewarding role ever) is gravely injured in a boating accident. He’s always been the “back-up parent,” the distracted dad who left the raising of his two daughters, impulsive Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), to his wife. Now, Elizabeth’s diagnosis isn’t good, Alexandra is a wildcard and Scottie is acting out. To make maters worse Matt discovers his wife had been having an affair with a realtor named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), and was contemplating divorce.
Simply put, “The Descendants” is one of the year’s best movies. Payne keenly observes Matt’s life, effortlessly mixing the heartache, humor and hate which make up the character’s journey. It’s complex but understated, focusing on small moments to create a larger whole that is deeply satisfying.
Clooney leads the uniformly terrific cast with a performance that puts aside the sly grin and charm that have been his trademarks till now. He’s raw, flawed and heartfelt in his search to rise above the domestic turmoil.
The supporting cast is equally strong. Shailene Woodley is a revelation playing a character trapped between childhood and an uncertain future. In the supporting cast Judy Greer as Speer’s unsuspecting wife, Beau Bridges as a greedy relative and Robert Forster as a grieving father-in-law all leave us wanting more, in the best possible way.
“The Descendants” is a hard movie to define. It’s a contradiction, a dramedy, a drama with comedic elements, but more than that it’s a small movie with big emotions.