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Movie Review: 'The Descendants'

by Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

The Descendants marks George Clooney's ascendance.

We already know that he's a charismatic and magnetic movie star. But with this lead performance, he should officially join the ranks of our top screen actors, certainly with an Oscar nomination for best actor and perhaps with the prize itself.

A big part of his good fortune -- and ours -- is his collaboration with director Alexander Payne, for whom Clooney delivers a performance of depth, nuance, and slice-of-life surprise.

(4 stars out of 4!)

Clooney stars as Matt King, a real estate lawyer living in Hawaii with his wife and two daughters who can trace his roots back to the commingling of white settlers and native Hawaiians, and is somewhat of a land baron these days, because he has been put in charge of managing his extended family's land trust on the island of Kauai that represents the last untouched inheritance of Hawaiian royalty.

His wife (Patricia Hastie) is in a coma, the result of a tragic boating accident.  Consequently, he must reconnect with his daughters, rebellious 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and her 10-year-old sister Scotty (Amara Miller), to whom this workaholic has been somewhat of an absentee father of late (of early, too) and who do not exactly respond to him as anything resembling a real authority figure.

And while he is watching over his comatose wife, he must also negotiate that parcel of unspoiled land that's for so long been in his family of haoles (white Hawaiians) and render his decision, as the trustee and major property owner.

Is it time to sell to a developer and finally make himself and his anxious relatives rich?

Then, as if he's not busy or burdened enough, he discovers that his wife had been having an affair with someone he is determined to identify, track down, and confront.

In his narrative and in his pacing, Payne (Sideways, Election, About Schmidt, Citizen Ruth), in his first directorial effort in seven years, adopts the characteristic rhythms of workaday Hawaii -- leisurely and easygoing but alert and alive.

And in capturing the real-life culture of contemporary Hawaii -- as a place where people actually live their lives, not just a destination for tourists -- he imprints his fabulous film with about as strong a sense of place as you'll ever find on the big screen.

Adapted from the 2007 novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings (a native Hawaiian), the smooth, exquisitely sad, surprisingly amusing screenplay about bereavement and betrayal by Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash gets all the family and dealing-with-grief dynamics just right, and generates an amazing amount of wrenching emotion for a film this low-keyed and mellow.

As superbly nuanced and accessible as Clooney is as an undemonstrative guy acutely aware of his emotional limitations trying to redeem himself and handle multiple simultaneous crises while quickly becoming a better father, his performance seems pretty close to the polar opposite of the cool, composed, accomplished movie star that we usually see from him.

Meanwhile, Woodley -- a real find and a candidate for a best supporting actress nod herself -- is likewise terrific, matching Clooney every step of the way as his coming-of-age, maturing-before-our-very-eyes older daughter.

Throw in an electrifying and indelible performance by Robert Forster as Matt's gruff, hurting father-in-law, and effective supporting turns by Beau Bridges as Matt's go-with-the-flow cousin, Nick Krause as Alexandra's seemingly goofy boyfriend, Matthew Lillard as a local realtor, and Judy Greer as the realtor's coming-to-grips wife, and you have one of the best supporting ensembles of the year.

So welcome back, Alexander Payne, always a strong handler of actors, whose strong directorial can be felt in every frame, and thanks for a marvelous movie that takes us to a simultaneously escapist and emotionally engaging place that few movies do.

So we'll say aloha to 4 stars out of 4 for a smart, funny, authentic, and heartbreaking tragicomedy.  The Descendants is nothing less than transcendent.

More Bill Wine movie reviews

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