Family Matters

George Clooney is brilliant in Alexander Payne’s ‘The Descendants’

By Lori Hoffman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 12, 2011

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The Descendants.

The Descendants was my favorite of 26 films viewed at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and in a year when the Oscar buzz was underwhelming coming out of the festival, Alexander Payne’s dysfunctional family dramedy earned a fair share of the acclaim.

Just named the best picture by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, The Descendants stars George Clooney as Matt King, the patriarch of a well-respected family from Hawaii. While in the middle of a major land deal for the last piece of pristine and therefore prime real estate on the islands, King has to deal with a wife on life support after an accident.

Dealing with this tragedy means acting like a responsible parent to his two girls, a wild child teenager, Alexandra (impressive newcomer Shailene Woodley) and his preteen Scottie (Amara Miller.)

It’s a role for which he has no previous hands-on experience since his wife handled the parenting chores and he must learn on the job. Staying on point at parenting is not easy when he finds out his wife was having an affair and he tries to get to the bottom of this painful news while dragging his kids along on his search for answers. This includes finding her lover and interacting with his rival (played by Matthew Lillard) and his wife (Judy Greer). 

Featuring the same subtle wit and interesting character dynamics that were featured in other Payne films including Election and Sideways, Matt and his girls are forced to learn and grow together.

Clooney is wonderfully anguished, angry and at moments hilariously clueless playing a guy who has been letting other people run his life for too long. He’s a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination. Ms. Woodley matches him with her own anger issues directed at her father for being such an idiot that he didn’t notice what was happening.

Also along for the ride in nice supporting moments are Robert Forster as Matt’s unforgiving father-in-law, Nick Krause as Alexandra’s not-as-goofy-as-he-seems boyfriend, Greer as the wife who eventually has her light bulb moment, and Beau Bridges in a Jeff Bridges-style role as Matt’s laid-back hippie cousin.

As with previous Payne movies (he co-wrote the screenplay with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash adapting the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings), The Descendants builds together small, telling moments that add up to a satisfying and very human tale. It hums along fueled by the imperfections that make us all human, while trying to uncover moments of grace and wisdom despite those imperfections.

New Year’s Eve
Confession time: I’m a sucker for the cliché-ridden feel good movies that Garry Marshall has been churning out for decades, most recently with the surprise multi-star hit Valentine’s Day. Now he has gathered up another A-list cast (Hillary Swank, Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Zac Efron, Halle Berry, Katherine Heigl, Sofia Vergara, Josh Duhamel, Ashton Kutcher, Lea Michele, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ludacris, Jon Bon Jovi, Abigail Breslin, Jessica Biel, Seth Meyers, Til Schweiger, Sarah Paulson, Jake T Austin and his “lucky charm,” Hector Elizondo) to do his schmaltzy thing with a New Year’s Eve theme. Much of it is dreck (in particular the ridiculous Kutcher-Michele romance), but the stories that work are charming and in a few select cases, provide a sudden emotional wallop. While New Year’s Eve is not something I can recommend unconditionally, its best moments caught me saying to myself, “Garry, you did it to me again.”

The Descendants
Directed by Alexander Payne; rated R

New Year’s Eve        **
Directed by Garry Marshall; rated PG13

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