Review: Clooney is superb in moving Oscar contender “The Descendants”

TELLURIDE, CO – By his own account it’s been a little over six years since Alexander Payne finished his duties on the acclaimed dramedy “Sideways.”  In the years since he wrote a few screenplays, shot a pilot, had surgery and, candidly admits, went through a divorce.  Today’s premiere at the 2011 Telluride Film Festival of his latest endeavor, “The Descendants,” proves that it was worth the wait.

An adaption of Kaui Hart Hemming’s novel of the same name, “Descendants” begins with Matt King (George Clooney) at the Honolulu hospital bed of his comatose wife who has been unresponsive since a high-speed boating accident a few weeks later.  The tragedy has come at a rough moment in King’s life.  The native Hawaiian is the trustee in charge of a large amount of pristine land that has been in his family’s hands for 150 years.  Numerous cousins (some richer than others) have a stake in what happens to the valuable property and a vote – that the whole state is watching – will soon occur on who to sell it too.  King is juggling that duty with his law practice and his newfound responsibilities for raising his two daughters in his wife’s absence; 17-year-old daughter Alexandria (“The Secret Life of the American Teenager’s” Shailene Woodley) and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller).  The weight on his shoulders becomes significantly tougher when he’s told his wife will have to be taken off life support.  It’s when informing Alexandria of this news that he discovers his wife had been cheating on him and was planning on asking for a divorce.  Shocked, King decides to find out who his wife was cheating with and, surprisingly, to let the guy know she only has a few days left if he’d like to visit her. That being said, it’s clear he also wants to find out what kind of man she’d betray him for.

This is obviously material that could easily swing to an over-the-top melodrama or even flat out comedy if in the wrong hands.  Luckily, Payne’s straightforward direction along with his witty, but credible dialogue (he is one of three screenwriters on the film) makes the whole scenario believable and unexpectedly moving (and not to mention funny). It’s no secret where a number of the plot points will end up from the first act forward, but how Payne navigates the journey keeps the audience entranced in the familial proceedings.

Clooney, who was onhand for a tribute at the festival over the weekend, has delivered a number of impressive performances in his career, but is rarely thought of as a true thespian.  Oscar win for “Syriana” aside, he’s mostly beloved for his personal and onscreen charm, wit and class.   Most critics and movie lovers forget his impressive and underrated turns in films such as “Solaris,” “O, Brother Where Art Thou?” and “Three Kings.” Many may have thought Clooney had a role of a lifetime in “Up in the Air” (a role very similar to his own persona), but he easily tops that in “Descendants.” Clooney wears King’s pain over his wife’s affair and his uneasiness on being a parent on his sleeve in subtle ways through almost every scene.  Many might have questioned if Clooney was worthy of being a two-time Academy Award winner for acting, but they won’t after seeing “Descendants.”

Finally finding some good material to show her wares, Woodley is the third piece of the puzzle in making “Descendants” as strong a film as it turns out to be.  She has a fantastic rapport with Clooney and she transforms Alexandria from a rebellious and angry teen into a young woman slowly realizing her maturity needs to step up after her mother’s passing.  Robert Forester, Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer are also effective in their limited screen time.  The only disappointment is Beau Bridges’ few scenes as an influential cousin of King’s.  Payne may have thought it would be appropriate for Bridges channel his brother’s laid back persona, but it’s a little too self-aware for these proceedings.

Word of mouth, awards season attention and Clooney’s starpower should help the Fox Searchlight film at the box office where it will have no problem surpassing Payne’s “Sideways” domestically.  The picture should also be a key component in the upcoming Oscar race contending for all the major awards including picture, actor, director and screenplay.  Woodley has an outside chance at snagging a supporting actress nomination. 

Needless to say, “The Descendants” is one film moviegoers and the industry will be discussing for a long time to come.

“The Descendants” opens in limited release on Nov. 23.

You can get the latest on awards season and the fall festivals by following Gregory Ellwood on Twitter @HitFixGregory.