Friday, April 20, 2012

The Descendants

There is an old-fashioned, Cary Grant-esque movie star quality about George Clooney. He exudes quiet confidence, intelligence, and social awareness, each which contribute to his magnetic personality, on screen and off. Clooney is also a somewhat accomplished director whose aesthetic lands somewhere in between the Coen brothers and Steven Soderbergh. With all these qualities, it’s easy to see how Clooney has risen to become a premiere figure in today’s moviemaking world. Yet while I admire the actor/director’s various talents, I have also felt an odd distance from his work. For example, he was effective as the grizzled CIA agent in Syriana, and still I never connected with the performance. Even his subdued work in Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton lacked the necessary texture to elevate the film to the heights I felt it should have achieved. I realize it is a peculiar position; to like an actor’s performances despite that they often leave me cold; to applaud a director’s films without ever really bonding with them.

Perhaps my bewildered stance regarding George Clooney’s work has brought me to The Descendants with a cautiously optimistic sensibility. Maybe I was primed for another admiring stance despite my deepest wishes to like it. After all, I am huge fan of Alexander Payne, whose Sideways is a recent favorite of mine. But even this couldn’t prepare me for how astonished I was over Clooney’s masterful performance in The Descendants. His portrayal of an absent father and husband with essentially a good heart is a thing of subdued beauty. Tonally, Clooney here is not far off from his past attempts at understatement. But in this role, something clicks. He plays Matt King, a successful lawyer who also happens to be the proprietor of thousands of acres of land on Hawaii. How much of his life is really his own making, however, is a question the film explores. It proffers a crisis scenario that sees King's wife beset by a terrible boating accident that puts her in a coma and subsequently exposes the unacknowledged unhappiness beneath the sheen of their life. Clooney’s deadpan voiceover provides an angry confessional for the character of King, who otherwise hasn't a clue how to interact with his friends, loved ones, and fellow Hawaiians. And yet, it is apparent that even he doesn’t believe the deep cynicism of his own words.

The Descendants is as hilarious as it is bleak—depressing but also life affirming. It is all of these at once, often at the same moment in a given scene. That it is such a whirlwind of a movie is a credit to Alexander Payne and George Clooney, as well as the entire cast. The characters each have the trademark quirks of an Alexander Payne film, but they also individually have mystery and humanity that is revealed in unexpected places. As significant is the film's portrait of the Hawaii, which has never been depicted quite like this by the movies. It is a real, breathing place and the actors inhabit it so believably that it becomes much more than setting or atmosphere.

While The Descendants works on a number of levels, its observations on the entanglements of love, regret, and responsibility are simple, universal, and treated delicately that they resonate all the more. As he did with Sideways, Payne locates moments of such bared pain and sadness, such as how King reacts when he learns of his wife’s affair; Clooney’s awkward, urgent trot through the soggy streets of his neighborhood—cheeks bouncing—is both uproarious and tragic (think Paul Giamatti running down the hill, bottle in hand, cork in mouth). But perhaps the most profound moment is Shailene Woodley’s underwater reaction to upsetting news, which is utterly the loudest, quiet expression of pain imaginable. The Descendants is full of penetrating moments like this. Thus, you can imagine my surprise when I found myself more than simply admiring, but genuinely moved by the performance by George Clooney at its center. (Alexander Payne, 2011) ***½

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