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Non-Review Review: The Descendants

George Clooney’s work in The Descendants is being hailed as the actor’s greatest performance to date. Truth be told, I suspect that Clooney’s filmography has (generally speaking) been remarkably strong, so it’s difficult to really isolate the actor’s “best” performance. That said, I do think that The Descendants allows Clooney to play his most mature role to date, as Clooney finds the heart and the heartbreak in this darkly comic drama about a “part-time parent”who gets a major bump in responsibility following his wife’s near-fatal accident.

Hedging his bets...

Alexander Payne, it seems, is quite the divisive director. It appears that the vast majority of people either fell head-over-heels in love with Sideways, or didn’t like it all. I was one of the relative few who sat on the fence with Payne’s real breakthrough film, appreciating the director’s style and technique, but unable to connect with the movie and its characters. I think that The Descendents works much better, and a large amount of that is down to a finer balance of humour and drama, but also a superb set of central performances from both Clooney himself and Shailene Woodley.

Payne, for his part, manages to strike the perfect balance between serious drama and absurd comedy, finding the subtle hilarity in the most dire of circumstances. The emotional stakes are high, but Payne and his cast are innately aware of the surreal nature of human behaviour – how frequently tragedy and comedy intertwine, especially when it’s inappropriate. There’s something heartbreaking about the way that George Clooney’s failed husband stumbles out of the house after an emotional revelation, looking for answers from friends who knew all along. at the same time, he looks absolutely silly, waddling in the first set of hastily-thrown-on flip-flops he could find. Later on, spying on a person who ruined his life (without ever meeting him), Clooney’s character peers out from behind a hedgerow like something from a slapstick comedy.

Quite a descent ahead of them...

If we didn’t laugh, we’d cry, and I think that’s where Payne’s direction serves the movie especially well. It prevents the movie’s grim subject matter from overwhelming the story of a man coping with the responsibility of acting like a father to two daughters he hardly knows (and his seventeen-year-old daughter’s boyfriend, who he picks up along the way). Set in Hawaii, and with a soundtrack evoking the islands, it’s easy to imagine the film devolving into angsty melodrama in the wrong hands.

There are a few moments, early on, where it seems like the script (from Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) might veer a little bit too far into that sort of stereotypical emotional drama. As Clooney’s Matt King reflects on his situation, there are moments when it seems like he’s almost wallowing in self-pity, trying to focus the circumstances pulling his family apart upon his own insecurities. “What is it that makes the women in my life so self-destructive?” King asks himself about ten minutes into the film, in a way that seems to suggest “it’s all about me.”The movie course-corrects pretty quickly once his daughter Alexandra is introduced, and a plot falls into place. Matt’s emotional frustrations are suddenly deserved and directed, and the movie works a lot better for it.

Shoring up his family...

Of course, it’s Clooney who sells the film. Payne has assembled a superb ensemble cast, but this is George Clooney’s show. All the rest are by-standers. And there’s something pitch-perfect about the casting and the performance. For some reason, Clooney is perfectly suited to playing middle-aged men still struggling with grown-up responsibilities. I think it’s the surreal combination of the boyish good looks and the grey hair, but that dynamic has been at the core of some the actor’s best work of late, including his superb turn in Reitman’s Up In The Air. Here, it arguably works even better, because Matt King isn’t unreasonably immature – just somewhat passive. He’s simply never had to deal with his kids, he’s never had to step-up and deal with these responsibilities.

Clooney is the perfect combination of sophisticated and emotionally uncertain, intelligent and insecure, affectionate yet removed. This is a character who holds his arms out expecting a hug at the wrong moment, or who can’t think of any appropriate way to reprimand his seventeen-year-old daughter other than to spank her. There’s a sense that Matt is stumbling through the film, trying to find a footing, and Clooney’s performance captures that almost perfectly. On top of that, the guy has great comedic timing, but never allows it to undermine the movie’s dramatic weight.

Life's a beach...

He’s assisted by Shailene Woodley as his older daughter, who is coping with her mother’s accident in her own unique way. I suspect that Woodley will go on to greater things, and that we’ll be seeing her quite a bit over the next few years. This is a nice performance in a good film, and I hope it’ll get her noticed. The rest of the cast is almost incidental, but Payne brings on solid performers like Robert Forster and Beau Bridges for relatively small roles. The always-underrated Judy Greer even gets a chance to turn a solid supporting performance. Though I will concede it’s slightly strange to see Matthew Lillard pop up here – simply because I’m not accustomed to seeing the actor in a mostly dramatic role.

There’s a lot to recommend The Descendents, and it’s a charming little dramedy. It’s built on Payne’s quirky sense of humour, but anchored in Clooney’s strong leading performance. Despite it’s subject matter, it’s affecting rather than cynical, and mostly subtly understated. Indeed, there’s something very satisfying about that final shot, as we can hear the narration from March of the Penguins faintly in the background, discussing ancient history and an ever-changing geography. Any movie that can close using Morgan-Freeman-as-metaphor is pretty fine in my book.

4 Responses

  1. I loved it. I thought Nick Krause’s performance as Sid was very special and I think, like Woodley, he is destined for great parts in the future. He did the damaged/slacker duality so well, for me. And I loved that the book’s author, Kaui Hart Hemmings, had a cameo as secretary Noe. Blink and you’ll miss it, but a nice touch.

  2. LOVE your blog, but you know what is the kicker? Your blurbs under your photos. Great job!

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