Film review | The Descendants – Clooney and Payne mine the human condition for tragicomic gold

A poignant, funny, warm-hearted tragicomedy set in Hawaii, The Descendants is director Alexander Payne‘s first film since the Oscar-garlanded Sideways seven years ago. He hasn’t lost his assured feel for the comedy and drama of ordinary life, and his deft handling gives George Clooney the opportunity to deliver one of the finest performances of his career.

Like Sideways, The Descendants revolves around a slightly befuddled middle-aged man in the throes of a crisis. Clooney’s beleaguered hero, Matt King, a lawyer living on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu, first goes into a tailspin when a waterskiing accident sends his thrill-seeking wife Elizabeth into an irreversible coma.

Hitherto the self-described ‘back-up parent’ in the marriage, Matt now has his hands full coping with their two awkward daughters, brattish 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and wayward 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). Unable to comprehend Alexandra’s abiding hostility towards her comatose mother, Matt gets hit by a second blow when his daughter reveals that Elizabeth had been conducting a sneaky extra-marital affair.

Reeling from the news, Matt sets off for the neighbouring island of Kaua’i on a quest to confront his wife’s lover, accompanied by his daughters and by Alexandra’s friend Sid (Nick Krause), a goofy, dreamy boy whose presence on the trip provides a laid-back comic counterpoint to Matt’s bristling anger and confusion.

But this isn’t all that Matt has to cope with. Hanging over him as he contends with his present crises is the thorny issue of how to handle the sale of 25,000 acres of pristine, hugely valuable land on Kaua’i that has been in his family for generations. With his clan of greedy cousins looking on, Matt as sole trustee must weigh the pros and cons, and his own prejudices, and try to come to an honourable decision.

Clooney’s Matt is essentially a good, decent man, yet he is as prone to jealousy, pettiness and anger as the rest of us, and it’s his flaws that make him an appealing and easily identifiable character. It helps that Clooney, stripping himself of any vestige of movie-star glamour, isn’t afraid of making himself look ridiculous, as in the scene in which, having just learnt of his wife’s infidelity, he takes off in a fury to find out the identity of her lover from some friends and neighbours, dashing to their house in flapping deck shoes that reduce his running to a flat-footed waddle.

Here, as elsewhere, the mix of slapstick and pathos is exquisitely judged, but the viewer needs to be patient for the film to work its magic. The pace is measured, the tempo low-key. Adjust to that rhythm, though, and you’ll be rewarded by Payne’s wry and perceptive view of the human comedy.

On general release from Friday 27th January 2012.

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