Alexander Payne is a name that not a lot of people know. He's a director/producer/writer that doesn't take too many swings at the plate but when he does, it's a homerun. Other points he's put up on the scoreboard have been About Schmidt, Election and the Oscar winner Sideways. His latest is The Descendants, which at a shallow glance appears to be an excuse to get paid to work in Hawaii for a couple months but is, in fact, his finest movie.
George Clooney stars as a man trying to corral his daughters and pick up the pieces after his wife goes into a coma from an accident. Early in the film we learn that his wife was also having an affair. What would you do in that situation? How sympathetic would you be? Would you confront the other man? Could you forgive your commatose wife? All these questions are answered in a tragic and heartbreaking way, but all the while still making you laugh.
This is easily George Clooney's finest performance. He's the frontrunner for Best Actor and he's lapping anyone else up for the title. I find it refreshing when someone as dashing as Clooney can pull off an every man who's at a loss so well that I believe he's ever had moments of his life that resembled that. Not only is he relatable, he's funny as hell. A simple activity like running down the street or hiding behind a bush is made laugh out loud funny by his physical comedy. On the other side of his performance is a man who's ripped apart by his kids, by his unfaithful wife, by his job, by his family and claws desperately to hold it together. His performance creshendos at the end of the film with a monologue to his wife that makes it impossible to hold back tears.
It's not just Clooney though that makes this film shine. Everyone in it is excellent and gives Oscar caliber performances. Namely Robert Forester (Jackie Brown), Shailene Woodley (ABC Family's Secret Life of the American Teenager) and especially Judy Greer (13 Going on 30, The VillageListen to my interview with her at the bottom of this review). Greer, although not getting a lot of screen time, fills each scene she's in with epperfescent light and goodness.
Not only is this movie a tribute to love and forgiveness and family; it's also a tribute to the state of Hawaii. The Descendants is based on the book by Hawaiian, Kaui Hart Hemmings, who's in the film as Clooney's secretary too. She and Payne successfully capture the spendor that is Hawaii in both a script and in visuals. Clooney may seem like a unorthodox choice for a lead where Hawaii and it's heritage are featured but the title is a hint to why it's not. It applies to those to come before Clooney...and after.
It's rare that a film comes along like The Descendants. Not everything works in it and it does clunk along here and there, but its message and Clooney's performance linger in your mind and heart long after you see it. That monologue I mentioned earlier still haunts me and makes me think that a final set of phrases to a loved one hasn't been uttered on screen in a while. The Descendants is a shoe-in for Oscar nominations, but as far as winning them...let's just say the bar is set. Your move, Hollywood. The Descendants (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: A+