Clooney Delivers Down to Earth Performance in "Descendants"

by Jeff Beck, Guest Film Critic
George Clooney nominated for best actor for "The Descendants"
George Clooney nominated for best actor for "The Descendants"
It’s been seven years since writer/director Alexander Payne brought us the excellent “Sideways” that told the tale of two men going on a wine-tasting tour shortly before one of them is to be married. What made it work so well was not only the performances from Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church, but also a great mixture of drama and comedy. Now Payne returns to a similar formula with his latest, “The Descendants,” with a story that’s quite different.


Matt King (George Clooney) has recently gone through tragedy that has left his wife, Elizabeth, in a coma. For the first time, he finds himself taking care of their young daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), something he doesn’t really know much about doing. At the same time, as trustee and part-owner of a large amount of land, he’s involved in a large real estate deal that’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He eventually gets the news that his wife is not going to recover, and since he needs help with taking care of Scottie, he travels with her to retrieve her sister, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley).


Not long after bringing her home, he breaks the news to her that her mother is not going to be alive much longer. However, she also breaks news to him that Elizabeth was cheating on him. This comes as a complete shock to Matt who immediately takes it upon himself to find out who she was having an affair with. This leads all of them on a trip to hunt down the man that Elizabeth was seeing so that Matt can confront him about Elizabeth’s condition and what occurred between them.


 Thus far, “The Descendants” has been receiving rave reviews, which makes it all the more disappointing that it’s not nearly as good as its reputation is being made out to be. The problem can be traced directly to the story, or the somewhat lack thereof. There certainly is a story here, just not much of one, and the effect can be felt over the nearly two-hour runtime. There was also the seemingly pointless nature of the real estate subplot which didn’t really mesh at all with the main story, making it rather superfluous.


Because of the stretched out feeling of the film, it doesn’t end up delivering the emotional impact that it’s clearly going for. You care slightly for the characters, but you wait so long for developments to occur that that caring is strained by the time you get to the emotional climax. The characters themselves are enjoyable and somewhat interesting to watch, it’s just that they’re not given much to work with. At times, it even feels like they’re waiting for the plot to move forward.


Clooney delivers a pretty good performance as a man who’s trying to pick up the pieces of his broken life after a pair of shattering events. Everything appeared to be going so well for him, but once his wife’s accident occurs, he is forced to deal with things he never thought he’d have to, such as caring for his young daughter. Clooney is able to make Matt a realistic, down-to-Earth character with a performance that is one of the film’s highlights.


The screenplay, adapted by Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, has some good moments that feature some good dialogue, and had it been trimmed down a bit, there might have been a great movie here. There are a few comedic moments spread throughout the film, most of which revolve around Alexandra’s friend Sid (Nick Krause), who’s really just around to support her. There’s nothing laugh-out-loud funny, but rather a much lighter comedy that the film could have used a lot more of.


Faxon and Rash both have very little experience with writing, but Payne has achieved quite a bit with it, winning an Oscar for co-writing “Sideways.” What had made that screenplay so successful was not only because it was a better mixture of drama and comedy, but also because the story was much stronger, making it much easier to care about the characters as they went on their wacky wine tour, and despite it being longer than “The Descendants,” it never felt stretched.


Each year there are usually one or two films that don’t deserve all of the insane praise they get (last year’s “The Fighter” is a prime example) and it looks like “The Descendants” is one for this year. That’s not to say it’s a bad film. It has a few things to like about it including Clooney’s performance (currently the frontrunner for the Best Actor Oscar), the characters, and a few funny moments, but overall, it’s the story that keeps it from being as good as it could be. If a good half-hour of fluff (such as the real estate subplot) had been cut, the pacing would be much tighter, allowing for that important emotional connection with the characters. It’s a shame to have to say it, but “The Descendants” disappoints. 2.5/4 stars.   FOR FILM FESTIVAL , FILM AND BROADWAY NEWS CLIPS, CLICK: .
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