Watch George Clooney as he runs around a corner in The Descendants, shot from a distance. If he had a little more weight he might waddle, but that flat-footed run — in boat shoes and shorts and a golf shirt – is enough. This is the way a middle-aged guy moves, and the character, Matt King, is no movie star. He’s a family man racing to ask his best friends to give him the name of the Other Man his critically injured wife had been sleeping with.
Playing someone jolted out of his comfortable emotions, Clooney gives what may be his best performance yet (as good and as deft as Up in The Air), and everything else in Alexander Payne’s film matches his level. Every scene is as precise and layered as that revealing shot of Clooney running, but no scene veers into the precious. Payne gives the film an enhanced realism – like the brightness of a photorealist painting – that feels lifelike even if it isn’t exactly naturalistic.
He uses this approach to create what may be his best work too – even richer than Sideways, more touching than About Schmidt – a film that is droll and immensely moving despite its unlikely story. Matt is the father of two daughters – a 10-year old and a wild 17-year-old – who has to pull the plug on the wife he learned was cheating only after her lethal brain injury.
Payne is quite obviously working against Clooney’s glamour here, but the film would be simply a stunt if all we saw was the movie star as the clueless, graying cuckold (if you were married to George Clooney would you … oh, why even ask the question). We learn early on that Matt’s wife’s condition is hopeless, but the film is not about preparing for death. It’s about life in the interim: How does he tell his children? Say goodbye? You can’t really settle scores with a comatose woman. This prickly story – spectacularly photographed in Hawaii – easily becomes enthralling.
In the film’s most inspired plot thread, Matt sets out to discover the truth about his wife’s affair. How could he resist? Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), the older daughter, has blurted out the truth and the information that Matt probably was the last to know – or next to last, after his younger daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller). Tracking down the other man becomes a game Matt and Alexandra share, the film’s quirky, effective version of father-daughter bonding. One of the movie’s trailers reveals far more than it should about the Other Man; discovering his identity is a delightfully comic part of the plot.
Clooney is brilliant at capturing Matt’s suddenly chaotic emotions: he’s the grief-stricken yet jealous husband, the father trying to protect his children yet needing their help. He and Woodley work beautifully and believably together. In a typical Hollywood film she’d have played his girlfriend, which is just one way The Descendants is smarter and more real than most movies.
Based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the film weaves in issues of money, real estate and social responsibility. Matt is executor of his extended family’s inherited, pristine land, and a proposed sale to developers could make them all even richer than they are. That subplot allows Payne to bring in wacky relatives to lighten the mood. Some of the Kings look like beach bums but are shrewd and rich, including Beau Bridges as a cousin.
The other supporting characters are sharply etched too, including Robert Forster as Matt’s gruff father-in-law and Judy Greer, who sensitively pulls off the impossible role of the Other Man’s wife. There’s never a good time to find out your husband is cheating, but she is in an especially awful spot. It’s hard to resent a brain-dead woman.
Clooney and Payne carry us along so smoothly, right through the lovely end, that it would be easy to underestimate The Descendants. It is not innovative or intellectually challenging or full of flash. But in its perfectly wrought eloquence, it may well be the best and most satisfying film of the year.
Here’s the trailer that doesn’t give away too much.