Alexander Payne has directed a trio of serio-comic films about middle class families. First there was ELECTION(1999) with Reese Witherspoon as a dynamo high school over-achiever who manipulates and ruins the life of her teacher, played with perfect underdog sadness by Matthew Broderick. Then came 2002's ABOUT SCHMIDT with a perfectly cast Jack Nicholson as a sour widower who discovers there are still pleasures in life and family. And in 2004 Payne surprised the industry with his indie hit SIDEWAYS, an often hilarious road trip picture with Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church as two pals hitting the wineries of Napa Valley. There are tinges of sadness and disappointment in all of these films. But that's just a side effect.
In his new film THE DESCENDANTS, Payne still shows a comic touch, but the film is far more introspective and deals with questions of infidelity, middle age crises, and impossible choices when a loved one is hopelessly lost to a coma. From previews and reviews, you probably have a good idea about the plot. Suffice it to say, Matt King (George Clooney), a wealthy lawyer in Hawaii, has more than his share of problems, all of which cause him to look at himself and his family in a more sober, responsible way. But it is a tough journey. He hardly knows his two daughters, a rambunctious pre-teen (Amara Miller) and a bitter teen (Shailine Woodley). He is the sole trustee for an inherited area of natural beauty that his cousins want to sell for millions. And is on the hunt for his wife's paramour. He quickly realizes that he has been clueless about his family, his life, and his future.
George Clooney has had an amazing career. He is natural and naturally attractive. He can play the suave leader of the OCEANS 11 films. He can take the back seat in his own directorial film GOOD LUCK, AND GOOD NIGHT (2005), a tense drama about Edward R. Murrow versus not only McCarthyism but also his network CBS. And he was hysterical in the Coen Brothers' classic comic tale O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000). But his performance as Matt in THE DESCENDANTS is a revelation. The slickness, the ease, and charm have been mostly erased, and we see a man on the edge, a man who either learns to love and deal with his kids or lose them. An Oscar nomination, if not a win, is in order. Amara and Woodley are perfect complements to Clooney. They are both adrift and have been for years, and it's not all Matt's fault. They display their anger and confusion with strong believablity. THE DESCENDANTS is a family film (not the kiddies, though) that parents and teens should see together. It not only entertains but also heals.