And so it begins—the annual attack of the Oscar-bait movies. Last week it was J. Edgar, starring Leonardo DiCaprio in a serious old-man suit. This week, similarly pre-swollen with prestige, it's The Descendants, from Alexander Payne, the director who gave us the uncompromisingly wry Sideways, and starring the age-defying Cary Grant of our time, George Clooney.
It's a picture that once again prompts the self-answering question, "Is George Clooney great, or what?" Here he plays Matt King, a prosperous Oahu lawyer whose family's lineage tracks back more than 100 years into the loins of Hawaiian royalty. Matt and his many, many wastrel cousins are the principals of a family trust that holds the rights to some 25,000 acres of gloriously unspoiled Kauai real-estate. Now an opportunity has come to finally sell it off, and avid developers—claiming only the most tasteful intentions, of course—are lined up with enough money in hand to make the whole family rich beyond the dreams of everyday greed. The cousins, perennially short of funds, are salivating over this once-in-a-lifetime deal; as is their real-estate broker, Speer, a slick huckster with a chiseled-in grin who stands to make a fortune himself in hefty commissions. However, the deal can only go through if Matt, as executor of the trust, approves it. I'd ask what you think happens if you hadn't already guessed.
Adapted by Payne and his co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from a novel by Hawaiian native Kaui Hart Hemmings, the movie is a family drama on two tidy levels. As the film opens, we learn that Matt's wife, injured in a recent boating accident, has been in a coma for three weeks; soon we learn that she will have to be taken off life support and allowed to die. Matt is drowning in guilt. Consumed with his law practice, he was never much of a husband, or a father, either. Now he wonders what kind of family life he can belatedly create for his 10-year-old daughter Scottie (freckly Amara Miller) and her 17-year-old sister, Alex (notably talented Shailene Woodley). Alex especially is a handful, and when Matt breaks the news that her mother is going to die, she responds with some news of her own: Unbeknown to her dad, mom had been cheating on Matt with another man—something Alex knows from first-hand observation: "He had his hand on her ass. It was gross."
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Clooney really is terrific here as a man adrift on a sea of roiled emotions, ambling around paradise in baggy shorts and shapeless tropical shirts. ("In Hawaii," he tells us, "some of the most powerful people look like bums and stuntmen.") And he deepens the carefully fashioned dialogue with subtle probings of baffled despair and banked anger. His Matt is a man too civilized to inflict a righteous ass-whipping on the character who bedded his wife (in Matt's own bed!). Could he also be too decent to allow the family land to be handed off into the clutches of despoiling hoteliers and heedless condo moguls?
It must be said that Payne doesn't overload with picture with postcard vistas. This is the Hawaii of natives and long-time residents: a little scruffy around the edges, occasionally overcast. It's an enterprising pictorial strategy, but it muffles the islands' grandeur—the very thing Matt is coming to believe must be preserved at all costs. There's plenty of delicately muted heartbreak (Judy Greer, as Speer's despondent wife, is both lively and moving) and there are quite a few laughs, too (often provided by Nick Krause as Sid, a young surfer dude with unexpected dimensions). In a week likely to be dominated by an animated penguin sequel and yet another invasion of bloodless teen vampires, The Descendants offers the satisfaction of grown-up concerns, and the gratifying pleasure of watching Clooney work new permutations of his effortless charm.
Looking back on the movie, though, we see that the characters, however winningly detailed, are basically markers along a path whose end is always in clear view. And the film's prosaic execution closes off the possibilities of sparkle and lift that might betoken a small classic. One can imagine an Academy nod for Clooney come February (he won the supporting-actor award for 2005 with Syriana). But if the filmmakers are anticipating a Best Picture call from Mr. Oscar, they probably needn't sit very close to the phone.