Film review: The Descendants

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IT’S maddening that George Clooney is so likeable, only he seems to be able to get away with advocating earnest movies and politics, whilst punting some remarkable brand endorsements.

In a DIY store recently, his suited and booted image was draped across some kitchen tiles. The George Clooney bathroom cleaner – it wipes away germs, and your doubts about the basic decency of liberal values – cannot be far away now.

In the meantime, we have Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, which gives us a slightly different Clooney – neither the bearer of political truths, nor the suave plugger of beverages and terrazos. As Matt King, he’s a wealthy descendant of one of Hawaii’s oldest families, planning to sell off a large chunk of pristine Kauai to property developers so that he and his extended family of cousins and Beau Bridges can become ludicrously rich.

A workaholic, he barely knows his own daughters – or his own wife, who has a serious speedboat accident at the start of the picture and lies in an irreversible coma. Matt knows that as the “back-up parent”, he’s ill-equipped for the job of rounding up ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley) to spend some final days with their mother. Scottie has a habit of flipping the vickies at dad, whilst his eldest daughter is at a boarding school for troubled teens, swigging alcohol.

But Alex has an unexpected punch for her dad: she knows her mother was having an affair, and planned to ask Matt for a divorce. Confused, overburdened and struggling for a better plan, Matt flies Scottie, Alex and Alex’s stoned boyfriend Sid (a very funny Nick Krause) to the family’s garden island to take a last look at the undeveloped property and confront his wife’s lover (Matthew Lillard).

None of this turns out quite the way you might expect, but then even Hawaii is a surprise – rather than the tropical paradise and home to about 30 of Elvis Presley’s movies, it’s a state of intriguing eccentricity, where “some of the most powerful people look like bums and stunt men”.

Alexander Payne is the same age as Clooney, but unlike his leading man he’s made only a handful of movies – the highly recommended Election and Sideways amongst them. His films tend to sneak up on you – the characters don’t seem like anything much, their deadpan comedy too wry to be substantial. But in his best work, these ingredients build up to something deeper, more substantial and surprisingly resonant. The Descendants is a heartfelt and tragic piece, but it’s also mature and very funny.

Clooney adds another dimension; all right, he doesn’t look like one of Hawaii’s native sons, but his wardrobe of loud shirts and bad shorts tend to move him away from the gorgeous George image to someone who sleepwalks through his wardrobe and through his life. It is probably one of his best performances, although not one of his sexiest.

The thrust of The Descendants is how families hurt and make peace with each other and the most remarkable performance comes from Shailene Woodley, who begins as one of her father’s most enthusiastic persecutors and then becomes the one adult he can probably trust.

Rating: ****

• On general release from Friday