by Joan Ellis
It is Clooney’s gift that in spite of being born with the burden of an irresistible face, he is able to check his ego at the door and find the core of a character.
The Descendants is neither slick nor sleek and for that refreshing pleasure we are indebted to producer/director Alexander Payne. The characters are the same odd assortment that make up our own lives, and at one time or another all are overwhelmed by circumstance. It is their reactions that set this movie apart primarily because both the characters and the circumstances are the familiar stuff of ordinary lives. It feels not so much like a scripted film as a series of predicaments common to the human condition. We know these people.
We are told that Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), who felt neglected by her lawyer husband Matt (George Clooney), developed a taste for alcohol, motorcycles, fast boats, and a lover. After a catastrophic boating accident, she lies comatose in a hospital with no hope of recovery. With Elizabeth’s living will directive in hand, Matt tells friends and family that they are welcome to come to the hospital to say goodbye.
The startling authenticity of this movie is seen perfectly at Elizabeth’s bedside. In flashback we see her vital delight at the helm of the speedboat, and then, the wrenching dead white reality of the coma. There is no one home in that body. In a life crisis that has no script, Matt reaches for grace and finds it.
All this unfolds in Hawaii where we quickly see that life in America’s paradise is subject to all the same family conflicts as life in any mainland suburb. Troubled teenagers, money fights, adultery – this may be common family currency, but George Clooney captures something rarely seen in Hollywood movies: the inner confusion most of us suffer as we try to sort options and make decisions. As Matt King, husband/father/lawyer, he is called upon to give the final word on severing his wife’s thin tie to life, to mediate a throng of ungrateful cousins as they vote to develop the family land, and, most importantly, to guide his two daughters Scottie (Amara Miller) who is ten and Alex (Shailene Woodley), seventeen.
Clooney manages to tell us through the slightest changes of expression that he is completely bewildered by the questions life has suddenly thrown his way. Reacting to each development with moments of unfiltered, raw emotion, he grabs back his control and reaches deep for considered decisions consistent with his own values. He’s human, but he is the family’s lead guy, the only one who can find the right solutions. His confusion is achingly familiar.
And then there’s the question of beauty. It is Clooney’s gift that in spite of being born with the burden of an irresistible face, he is able to check his ego at the door and find the core of a character. As daughter Alex, Shailene Woodley’s good looks mask only for a second the fierce intelligence of a truly fine actor. With the help of a fine, committed cast, these two take this movie to some very unexpected places.