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The Descendants - Review

The Descendants

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4.5 out of 5

GEORGE Clooney continues to be a name synonymous with high style and free-flowing charisma. It’s what makes seeing his stripped down, vulnerable performance in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants all the more remarkable.

Based upon Hawaiian writer Kaui Hart Hemmings acclaimed novel, the film is a heartfelt comedy-drama that sees Clooney playing a father attempting to come to terms with an accident that has left his thrill-seeking wife in a coma, which in turn prompts the revelation that she was having an affair.

A hitherto successful lawyer, Clooney’s Matt King is therefore forced to step up and become a full-time parent to his two daughters (10-year-old Scottie and 17-year-old Alexandra) while making sense of his own feelings about the situation, at the same time as deciding on a massive land deal that could seal the fate of a Hawaiian beauty spot for better or worse.

Clooney takes centre-stage for most of the movie, delivering a subtle, highly nuanced performance as the dysfunctional father forced to do his own growing up.

Balancing feelings of betrayal and anger with devastation at the impending loss of his wife, as well as the responsibility of lone parenting, the actor masterfully creates a flawed but all-too-human individual who must constantly put aside his own true feelings in a bid to provide a moral compass for his daughters.

Payne’s script, meanwhile, ensures that moments of high drama or heartfelt intimacy are balanced with often laugh-out-loud humour, maintaining a near-perfect balance between the two that never feels forced or overly contrived.
Indeed, just as he did with Paul Giamatti in Sideways and Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt, Payne provides the perfect platform upon which to allow Clooney to flex some acting muscles that don’t often get tested.

And it’s in the quieter emotional moments that the actor excels, especially in a quiet farewell between him and his comatose wife, or as he realises his own inability to cope with his daughters and the shortcomings in his own life that have brought him to this point.

In doing so, he deftly also layers in some nice comedic touches that play to the timing he honed while working with the Coen brothers.

But such is the strength of the performance that audiences will want to throw a big arm around him in consolation… not that all the plaudits go Clooney’s way.

There’s terrific support, too, from the likes of Shailene Woodley, excellent in her first major role as Matt’s feisty older daughter and tapping into a similarly complex range of emotions, and Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer in roles that are best left awaiting discovery.

Payne, too, proves what a masterful writer-director he is and why his absence from the screen since Sideways has been sorely felt. He instinctively seems to know how to draw the best from an ensemble cast while providing scenarios that are as relatable and emotionally realistic as they are involving and often humorous.

His juxtaposition of the Hawaiian locations and their inherent beauty with the pain and turmoil of the people living around it also provides a striking contrast that gives extra weight to the observations contained within the brilliant opening monologue that sets things in motion.

Awards have already been mentioned and would be deserved… but this is also a film to stand the test of time and to be enjoyed over and over again for all its intricate layering.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 117mins
UK Release Date: January 27, 2012