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The Descendants Review: Robustly-Constructed, Expertly-Acted Mood Piece

No, it’s not Sideways, but Alexander Payne's emotionally complex drama is hilarious and heartfelt in equal measure, boosted by a stellar turn from George Clooney.

rating: 4

(Our review from the London Film Festival re-posted as The Descendants is released in the UK this weekend) The first thing you should know about The Descendants, Alexander Payne's first film in 7 years, is that it should not be compared to the director€™s last effort, the fantastic Sideways. While it doesn't reach the heights of his bitingly satirical, wine-slurping dramatic comedy - which should have taken Best Picture over Million Dollar Baby at 2005's Academy Awards - this is a robustly-constructed, expertly-acted mood piece which should appeal to all quarters of the Academy and find itself plenty of attention in the coming awards race. Based on Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel of the same name, Payne's film revolves around Matt King (George Clooney), a seemingly charmed man living a perfect life in Hawaii; he has a beautiful wife, two daughters, a successful law firm, and is the sole trustee to a large plot of land which, upon selling it, will leave him incredibly wealthy. All this is brought crashing down, then, when his wife is in a boating accident and winds up in a coma, with a grim prognosis suggesting she will never wake up. Matt, who barely spends time with his kids, must now for the first time live-up to the expectations of fatherhood and help his children deal with the possibility that they may never get to speak to their mother again. It sounds like a miserable premise and one that could easily go sour, but writer-director Payne is no stranger to crafting these tender narratives which juggle humour with heart. With grander, more emotionally treacherous stakes than most of his oeuvre, Payne navigates a minefield of challenging characters whose unique sets of problems are remarkably easy to become wrapped up in, thanks to outstanding performances and a screenplay conceived with heart, wit, and just enough of an edge. While hardly the most original drama you're likely to see this year, our expectations of not only the film's genre, but also its setting, are supremely challenged; Matt's early sentiment, suggesting that "Paradise can go fuck itself", succinctly de-romanticises the touristic view of Hawaii, while the film's central dilemma creates a startling quandary for him, and for us. While the voiceover narration of the opening reel feels a tad laboured and unnecessarily expository, it is thankfully discarded after roughly half an hour, at which point the film seems to change from someone trying to ape an Alexander Payne film into an actual film of his. A devilishly funny, powerfully moving drama follows, propelled largely by the early twist that, in fact, Matt's comatose wife had been cheating on him. It adds a fresh dimension to a potentially rote feast of sadness, heightening the moral ambiguity of Matt's situation as it does so; he has to listen to people adulate his unconscious wife as lovely and loyal, telling him he should have been a better husband to her while blissfully unaware of her less than flattering transgressions. The situation creates of him a very unconventional hero, jumping on the grenade and sacrificing much of his own integrity to ensure everyone else's perception of her isn't tainted. George Clooney is fantastic here, and as seems perennial by now, will be a much-discussed fixture on this year's awards circuit, fluttering close to Academy recognition for Best Actor once again. While he tackles the witty and more serious elements with equally effective skill, it is the smaller moments which make the performance truly remarkable; a longing glance at an arguing couple early on is very telling, his loneliness and regret extending to simply wishing that his wife could speak to him, no matter if it has to be antagonistically. The transformative nature of his character, rallying through a wide array of emotional states, gives Clooney a wide berth to display multiple facets of his acting prowess. Clooney is followed by a uniformly strong supporting cast; Shailene Woodley is especially noteworthy and may find herself chasing an Academy Award as Matt's rebellious, drug-taking, foul-mouthed teenage daughter Alex. The yin to Matt's yang in many respects, she challenges his already loose sense of authority while ultimately proving helpful as his confidante in a quest for answers. Providing much-needed comic relief is Nick Krause as Alex's airheaded pal Sid who, in fact, turns out to be a lot less dumb than he looks, and steals at least three scenes with some cracking punch lines (and in one instance, an actual punch, at the hands of Robert Forster). Forster, meanwhile, very nearly runs away with the film as the angry, frustrated father of Matt's wife, struggling to come to terms with his daughter's condition and keen to blame Matt for it. Get past the awkward opening and there's a wonderful film here that sits proudly alongside the acclaimed director's back catalogue. No, it€™s not Sideways, but Alexander Payne's emotionally complex drama is hilarious and heartfelt in equal measure, boosted by a stellar turn from George Clooney. The Descendants is playing in UK cinemas now. This is actually our second positive review of the film after our write-up from the New York Film Festival.
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Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.