The Descendants (15)
Verdict: Will go down in history
Nominated for two major Oscars (best picture and actor) and likely to win best adapted screenplay, this is a grown-up, perceptive, funny film about family and responsibility, subjects rarely covered in movies except in cliched, romantic terms.
Rich, complacent lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) has been able to behave selfishly until well into middle age, but suddenly has to come to terms with responsibilities to wife, daughters, extended family, ancestors and community.
He tries to cope with several crises in his life simultaneously. First, as the senior member of a huge Hawaiian family that can trace its roots back to King Kamehameha, who united the islands of Hawaii in 1810, Matt is the major shareholder in his family trust. Cousins are pressing him to let them cash in on 25,000 acres of prime land on a beautiful island.
Family crisis: George Clooney and Shallene Woodley as father and daughter in The Descendants
Second, Matt’s wife Elizabeth (Patti Hastie) is in a coma after a boating accident, so he has to behave as stoically as possible in front of friends and relatives, and become more than a ‘back-up parent’ to his daughters, a vulnerable ten-year-old (Amara Miller) and a rebellious 17-year-old (Shailene Woodley).
It doesn’t help that the older girl’s going out with a surfer dude (Nick Krause) whom Matt instinctively despises.
Matt can’t understand why his daughters don’t obey him: ‘It’s like you don’t respect anything!’ he cries, unaware that it’s mostly him they disrespect.
Third, Matt discovers his wife was having an affair with a local real-estate agent (Matthew Lillard). This makes him even more angry. ‘Nothing is ever a woman’s fault!’ he snarls, defiantly.
Fall guy: Clooney is rarely better than as a smart alec learning not to be an idiot, and this performance is on a par with his turn in Up In The Air, which also earned him an Oscar nomination
At the heart of the movie is Matt’s damaged relationship with his daughters, especially the elder one, beautifully played by Woodley, who should have been a best supporting actress Oscar nominee.
Already a winner: Clooney with his Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture Drama at the Golden Globe Awards
Her character development is superbly written and acted, and it’s movingly obvious that she is in some ways more emotionally mature than her father, and he desperately needs her help.
More excellent support is provided by Robert Forster, exceptional as Elizabeth’s father, a bad-tempered man who never much liked his son-in-law, and Judy Greer, in a career-best performance that I can’t describe without giving away the plot.
Clooney is rarely better than as a smart alec learning not to be an idiot, and this performance is on a par with his turn in Up In The Air, which also earned him an Oscar nomination.
Some of his early acting smacked of vanity. Now, he’s unafraid to be seen in unflattering costumes, doing undignified things.
I can’t recall any actor who has had the suave charisma of Cary Grant, coupled with the comic timing of Jack Lemmon. Clooney nails that combination here; in his early films, he was content to be a matinee idol, keeping most of himself well hidden. He’s grown into the real deal, an authentically great screen actor.
He has many fabulous scenes, especially one where he confronts the man who nearly wrecked his family. In this sequence and many others, writer-director Alexander Payne shows the same skill as the great Billy Wilder, in being able to combine tragedy and comedy in the same scene and move between the two without any tonal dissonance.
Payne specialises in wise, witty tragi-comedies. This is as good as his previous best films — Election, About Schmidt and Sideways — and it’s his warmest, kindliest yet. It confirms him as one of the most thought-provoking film-makers today — and one of the most entertaining.
This is a film of rare maturity, and as such it may leave younger audiences cold. I can see how they might find it rambling and uneventful. Much of the ‘action’ is taking place below the surface and behind people’s eyes.
It’s also the least satirical of Payne’s films, the one in which he seems the most disposed to forgive his characters their sins; and that may not please those looking for something ‘edgier’.
But I make no apology for awarding it five stars. In a world full of cinematic junk food, this is haute cuisine.