It’s hard to believe George Clooney as a cuckold. In fact, it’s kind of impossible.
Strange to say, but as Matt King, the rumpled, aloha shirt wearing put-upon everyman in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, I enjoyed Clooney’s performance enormously without ever quite buying it for a second. He’s the sad-sack, beat-down dad to two girls, and when Matt’s wife is critically injured in a boating accident during the opening credits, he suddenly needs to step up and take charge.
“I was the backup parent,” he muses, during the on-the-nose voice-over narration that thankfully recedes as the picture wears on. Adapted by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ 2007 novel, The Descendants finds Clooney fumbling with fatherhood, as if for the very first time. His daughters Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) walk all over Matt. In fact, everybody walks all over Matt.
He’s the lawyer in charge of a massive land trust inherited by his family, 2,500 unspoiled acres on the island of Kauai. It’s come time to sell this chunk of paradise to a land developer, and the least interesting parts of the movie follow Matt’s conflicted decision-making process.
Far more fascinating is his emotional journey when Matt discovers that his wife has been cheating on him. She’s drifting away in an irreversible coma, so it’s up to Woodley’s rebellious, 17-year-old pistol to tell dopey Dad the news that Mom’s been stepping out.
I know what you’re thinking—who in the world would ever cheat on George Clooney? It’s a question The Descendants never quite figures out how to answer. The star wears wrinkly shirts, cargo pants and looks hilarious when trying to run in flip-flops, but he’s still unmistakably Clooney. Perhaps George’s old Syriana weight and beard might have helped the case here, because despite the tousled gray hair, he’s just too distractingly handsome for a role that feels like a better fit for Payne’s old Sideways cohort, Paul Giamatti.
Matt’s wife has been sleeping with slimy real estate mogul Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) and the movie’s fascinating mid-section finds him dragging his daughters along on a road trip, breaking the news to relatives that his wife is not going to wake up, and eventually attempting to track down and confront this mysterious “other man.”
The Descendants’ largely plotless middle hour is fantastic. Clooney’s hesitant, fumbling relationship with his teenage daughter is played with just the right angry, coltish awkwardness by Woodley. Payne has a knack for letting scenes breathe and allowing his characters to surprise us. Alex’s dopey, wastrel boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) is tagging along for the ride in what seems like an easy bid for comic relief. But he’s granted an unexpected extra dimension in a moment of jarring pathos. Clooney backs off, and we watch his eyes resize this twerp, realizing he’s underestimated him.
Indeed, most of the movie is Clooney stepping back and re-evaluating everything and everybody he once took for granted. It’s a fascinating, largely internalized performance. As he gets older and annoyingly better-looking, George Clooney is becoming a better actor too, underplaying and allowing the smallest of gestures to speak a thousand words. No, I still didn’t believe him in the part, but it’s some wonderful work all the same.
With the exception of a lovely short film in 2006’s omnibus Paris, Je Taime, Payne has been missing in action since Sideways , which was a full seven years ago. Given that the director made his name with scabrous satires like Citizen Ruth and Election, it’s surprising just how muted and low-key The Descendants turns out to be. There’s a remarkable use of location shooting, eschewing the typical Hawaiian postcard shots for a more modern glimpse at the office parks and old family houses we seldom see in pictures. The movie’s island life feels convincingly lived-in.
Not that anybody can do much for that land trust subplot, which drags down the third act like an albatross, despite a winning cameo by Beau Bridges—attempting to channel some of kid brother Jeff’s Dude-erisms. Much better are turns by Robert Forster and Judy Greer, supporting cast MVP’s from a thousand other movies here granted a little more space than usual, keeping with the movie’s modus operandi of initially broad caricatures gradually deepening over the course of a scene. (Forster’s deadpan dismissal of Krause’s teenage know-it-all alone might be worth the price of admission.)
Stumbling over the finish line with some sentimental strokes one would never expect from the ruthless director of About Schmidt, The Descendants feels like a transitional film for Alexander Payne. He’s lost his angry-young-man pitilessness and here fumbles a bit for a more measured, accepting tone. It grows on you.
Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller