With George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard. Written by Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash. Directed by Alexander Payne. Rated R (for language including some sexual references). 115 minutes.
Director Alexander Payne makes films that are hard to classify. Movies like “Sideways” and “About Schmidt” are both comedies and dramas. They are really character studies and in presenting us with complex characters Payne sees both the comedy and the tragedy that makes up most of our lives. Such is the case with THE DESCENDANTS, a film that may be George Clooney’s best work as an actor to date and might even win him another Oscar.
Clooney plays Matt King, an attorney in Hawaii who has to handle a full plate of problems. First, his wife has been in a boating accident, is in a coma, and may never recover. Second, he learns that while he’s been playing the workaholic, she’s been having an affair. Third, he is the person who has to decide how to deal with a massive site of undeveloped land which has been held in trust for his extended family: should it be sold or be allowed to remain undisturbed? Fourth, he suddenly has to be the active parent for his two daughters.
Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) is a teenager in boarding school who keeps acting out. She’s a teenage girl who thinks she know it all in large part because she seems to have been raising herself. Her younger sister Scottie (Amara Miller) is on the verge of hitting her teens and doesn’t have much in the way of role models. Matt is ill-equipped to handle these two feisty girls, but it’s not like he has a lot of choice.
As with other Payne films it’s more a collection of incidents than a story-driven movie. We know that Matt will have to make a decision about the land, but that’s more of a plot device than the reason for the film, just like the African child Jack Nicholson writes to in “About Schmidt.” Instead, this is about a man who has found a nice shell to hide in while avoiding life. Suddenly, he finds himself pulled out and forced to deal with the world, and it’s not easy. He’s making it up as he goes along as when he tracks down the man (Matthew Lillard) with whom his wife has been having an affair. Once he finds him, what is he going to do?
In movies like “Election,” “Sideways” and “About Schmidt,” Payne seems fascinated with men forced to get out of their ruts and confront the messy, real world. It may not be pleasant, but sometimes it is, and that’s where the mix of comedy and drama comes in. There are moments when Clooney lets us see how Matt is struggling to handle everything that has been dumped in his lap, and there are moments, like the film’s final scene, where we see a man who has figured out what’s truly important. It’s a wonderful, touching performance without a touch of star power.
“The Descendants” is a solid, grown-up film that reminds us that there’s real heroism in simply living day to day.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.