Alexander Payne returns to the director's chair with The Descendants, another Oscar-standard indie.
Like Payne's earlier films, About Schmidt and Sideways, it follows an over-the-hill male character as they face a crisis in later life and also offers an actor enough challenging material with which they can bag a heap of awards. Jack Nicholson received an Oscar nomination for About Schmidt whilst Paul Giamatti received a Golden Globe nomination for Sideways and now George Clooney is garnering similar favour from the award ceremonies.
Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian lawyer with a wife in a coma, two estranged daughters and 25,000 acres of pristine land on Kaua'i which presents a troubling to-sell-out-or-not-to-sell-out dilemma. And for extra drama, King discovers that his wife was having an affair before she fell into a coma. With all that to work with, it is hardly surprising that Clooney has already won the Globe for Best Actor and is the current favourite to take home the Oscar as well.
You would be forgiven for being put-off by the above synopsis. Comas, incest and property law doesn't exactly make for an exciting Friday night at the cinema. That is, unless you have Payne on screen-writing duties. Payne and his co-writers, Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (both alumni of improv troupe The Groundlings), manage to squeeze comedy out of every situation, whether it be an unexpected sucker punch, a forced apology between two young girls, a dopey slacker laughing at swear words, a hoard of unexpected middle-fingers or just Clooney running around in flip-flops. Fear not, The Descendants is littered with big laughs and feel-good moments.
Clooney has always been a diverse actor and his role as Matt King allows him to use the full range of his ability. He delivers tears as he cries over his wife, rage as he meets his wife's lover, dramatic speeches about preserving untouched Hawaiian land and plenty of comedy (perfectly-delivered after three films with the Coen Brothers). Whilst his performance is not as raw or brave or disturbing as Michael Fassbender in Shame, it does tick a lot more boxes.
Also, unlike Shame, this is not an opportunity for one actor to shine and Clooney is rather the head of an ensemble. This is an indie flick which means you have a mix of A-listers (Clooney), veterans (Robert Forster), familiar faces (Judy Greer), actors trying to reinvent themselves (Matthew Lillard) and complete newcomers. The best of these newcomers are the three kids: Amara Miller as King's scene-stealing tomboy daughter, Nick Krause as the equally scene-stealing idiot along for the ride and finally Shailene Woodley as King's eldest daughter, who shares with Clooney the emotional weight of the film. Woodley is definitely one to watch for in the future.
Ultimately, The Descendants tackles big issues with a light-hearted approach. It is carried by strong performances, original writing and a life-affirming sense of humour. Watch it, enjoy it, laugh loud, cry hard and treat yourself to a bowl of ice cream afterwards.