Following George Clooney’s Oscar nomination for Best Actor, The Descendants is now critic-proof, which is no great travesty. Based on Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel, Alexander Payne’s first release since Sideways eight years ago is an intense, modern family drama blended with his unique comedy relief. Clooney takes on the against-type role of Mattie, a floppy-haired, workaholic dad whose life is turned upside down when his wife is left in a coma following a boating accident.
Despite living in one of the surfing capitals of the world, Honolulu, it’s been 15 years since the part Hawaiian lawyer and dad-of-two has stepped onto a surf board. He’s also ashamed to admit that it’s been years since he last minded his youngest daughter, Scottie (Miller), on his own. He doesn’t even know where to begin with his troubled 17-year-old daughter Alexandra (Woodley).
His other dilemma is that the family trust fund that his parents left him in charge of, a huge heap of prime real estate on the island of Kauai, is on the brink of being sold. With his world in flux, he rethinks all of his once clear-cut moves and the journey of self-discovery brings him closer to everyone he has ever loved, both living and dead.
Just as Sideways was one of those films best recommended yet unhyped, The Descendants is not a genre-breaking film but rather a good universal story, very well told by excellent characters - focusing on the effect of lost love and time.
It seems that Payne has mellowed with time as originally he failed to cast Clooney as Paul Giamatti’s Sideways travelling companion, Jack - the bolshie actor played by Thomas Haden Church - as he was too famous. Casting Clooney now, who is perfect in this role, isn’t Payne’s only concession. Unlike Election or About Schmidt, where unpredictable politics and pace dictated the outcome, here the pace drags in parts with Payne only coming to the rescue in the nick of time, with all-too-tidy resolutions.
Clooney is wonderful as the dignified yet bumbling, out-of-his-comfort-zone fool but I’m not sure it’s a good enough performance to follow his Syriana Best Supporting Actor win of 2006. He's certainly popular enough with the Academy, but it’s hard to believe that he or indeed Brad Pitt’s Moneyball turn were good enough to knock Michael Fassbender's Shame out of the running.
The ensemble casting is, as per Payne usual, perfect. In addition to a welcome cameo by Beau Bridges, Robert Forster is superb as Clooney’s father-in-law. The children are great with Woodley, in particular, giving a star-making performance - as does her stoner-bud, Sid (Krause), who supplies much of the glib comedy. However, as his jock persona is stripped away, it’s clear that he has a lot more to offer.
Despite a couple of missed opportunities, there are a number of gripping scenes that make the hype, queues and nominations worth it.
P.S. A nice bit of trivia for Community fans: Dean Pelton aka Jim Rash is one of The Descendants screenplay writers: "Eat that City College and wash it down with a big tall glass of Suck It!"