George Clooney stars in 'The Descendants': movie review
George Clooney’s nuanced performance carries ‘The Descendants,’ an alternatively funny and tragic family drama.
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Ironically, inevitably, it is the search for Elizabeth’s boyfriend, who turns out to be an Oahu real estate agent named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), that ends up bonding Matt with his eldest daughter. They track Brian down to the Big Island where he’s taking a mini-vacation with his family and, in coconspiratorial mode, press a confrontation. But Matt isn’t the type to foment a fight. What he really wants from Brian, in a beautifully written and acted scene, is something more than a punch-out. He wants Brian to come to the hospital in Oahu and pay his last respects to Elizabeth. (In the course of the film practically all the major players have their solo scenes – they are more like confessions – with the comatose Elizabeth.)Skip to next paragraph
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Although there are some magnificent vistas on view in “The Descendants,” particularly of the Kauai acreage that Matt is loath to part with, Payne doesn’t portray Hawaii in paradisiacal colors. This is perhaps the first film ever shot in Hawaii that brings out the workaday, almost banal aspects of the islands. It’s a bracingly realistic – bracingly honest – view of experience, and it’s entirely in keeping with the open-ended way in which Payne works.
He surprises us. Just when you think you’ve pegged a person’s character in this film, the emotional landscape shifts and you realize you didn’t really know that person after all. This is true not only of Matt and his daughters but also of Alex’s stoner boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), who, somehow, ends up as a kind of mentor to Matt; or Matt’s martinet father-in-law, Scott (Robert Forster), who blames him for Elizabeth’s accident; or Brian’s wife, Julie (Judy Greer), with her fragile chipperness; or Matt’s cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), who can’t comprehend why his relative wouldn’t want to sell the Kauai acreage and reap a windfall for the family.
All these actors are wonderful, and none more so than Clooney, who does something very difficult here: He makes decency magnetic. There is not a trace of vanity in the way he plays down his trademark glamour. He and Payne are coconspirators, too. They know that the story they are telling is too emotionally complicated to muck up with a lot of preening and artifice. They head right into the sad and crazymaking humor of the situation. This is a modest marvel of a movie. Grade: A (Rated R for language, including some sexual references.)
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