‘The Descendants’: A quiet triumph for George Clooney

  • By Robert Horton Herald movie critic
  • Tuesday, November 22, 2011 8:22am
  • LifeGo-See-Do

A rich guy in Hawaii — and one who looks like George Clooney, to boot — does not sound like a movie protagonist of great sympathy. But give Matt King a chance, and he might win you over.

Matt begins by telling us that Hawaii might not be the paradise it’s cracked up to be, and goes on to share his particular misery: His wife is in a coma because of a boating accident, he’s an awkward father to his two daughters, and his extended family expects a momentous decision on a large piece of ancestral property, a legal issue on which he is the sole trustee.

This is the harried hero of “The Descendants,” the new film from Alexander Payne, the director of “Sideways” and “About Schmidt.” Matt, who is played by George Clooney, faces a variety of revelations and challenges that quietly change him as the movie goes along.

“Quietly” is the key word. Matt’s not a bad person when the film opens; perhaps he’s been just a little too comfortable, in the way someone who grows up rich in Hawaii might have a somewhat unexamined life.

Now that comfort zone has been punctured, and over the course of a few days this guy needs to face himself and do a little deep thinking. In other words, just the kind of situation Alexander Payne has looked at in his previous movies: a delicate mix that examines the border between the slapstick and the tragic, two moods that live closer to each other than a lot of people think.

This is a very peculiar mode, and the balmy, overcast backdrop of Hawaii suits the character’s dilemma. This isn’t the postcard place, but a world where everybody’s casualness belies the fact that certain essential human functions still need to be tended: a connection to the land, the responsibilities of parenthood, the importance of saying goodbye to someone even when she can’t hear you.

Plus, “The Descendants” has Clooney, who gives a textbook example of why movie stars are required for certain films.

Clooney’s immediate audience rapport, his congeniality laced with a bit of irritability, is our shortcut into the picture’s sweet-sour, funny-sad world.

His daughters are ably played by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller, and Robert Forster is authentic as his perpetually hostile father-in-law. Smaller roles are neatly etched by Judy Greer and Matthew Lillard.

“The Descendants” is a very soft film, so understated in its manner that I found myself craving just a little more oomph at times. But Payne is a master at creating scenes that give you about five different ways of reacting to things; you might feel shock or humor or revulsion or warmth at what’s happening on screen, all mashed together.

Since most movies demand a single, easy-to-digest meaning at all times, Payne’s approach is all the more welcome.

“The Descendants” (3½ stars)

A soft, very low-key look at a stressful moment in the life of a well-to-do Hawaiian (George Clooney) suddenly faced with a variety of family challenges. Every scene offers tragedy and comedy in equal doses, and Clooney provides the effortless-looking grace notes of a born movie star.

Rated: R for language, subject matter.

Showing: Call theater for show times; theater list on Page E2.

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