Sideways director Alexander Payne gives his big star room to actually act and react in a low-key manner, which helps makes this story of a midlife disaster truly convincing and affecting
WHILE male movie stars unquestionably have an easier time than their female peers when it comes to extending their careers into middle age, it takes a certain willingness to accept the minor ravages that time can have on their well-pampered bodies to do it gracefully. If The Descendants is anything to go by, George Clooney isn’t going to have any problems in this respect. Though there’s nothing particularly urgent or edgy about Alexander Payne’s first film since Sideways, it almost seems radical for what it allows Clooney to do as an actor: play a somewhat dishevelled 50-year-old man secure in the knowledge that delivering a commanding screen performance doesn’t require big gestures or grandstanding technique.
He plays Matt King, a Honolulu-based real-estate lawyer who is also descended from indigenous royalty, a fact that has made him trustee of an unspoiled stretch of coastline that his many cousins (led by the amusing Beau Bridges) have decided they want to sell to developers in order to become filthy rich. Matt isn’t completely convinced this is the right thing to do, and he’s even less focused on the decision when a speedboat accident leaves his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), in a coma. Though he immediately resolves to become a better husband and a better father to ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and attitudinal 16-year-old Alexandra (the excellent Shailene Woodley), this course of action is quickly complicated by two pieces of news for which he’s wholly unprepared: the first is that his wife’s coma is irreversible; the second is that she was planning to leave him for another man (Mathew Lillard).
That second development could be seen as the biggest plot flaw, given Clooney’s involvement, and yet the film manages to make it seem entirely plausible thanks to the way Payne handles his star. Just as he paves the way for an appreciation of the real beauty of Hawaii by kicking the film off with myth-puncturing shots of grimy streets, rundown shopfronts and inclement weather patterns (this isn’t the vision of the island found in the tourist brochures or the opening credits of Magnum PI), Payne subtly undermines Clooney’s surface charm, charisma and handsomeness to better exploit the things that really make him an attractive actor and screen presence.
Clooney’s performance is not one of those externally transformative ones necessitating weight gain and a mask of facial hair – and nor is it the kind that requires him to play the wild-eyed, jaw-jutting grotesque that he perfected in his work with the Coen brothers. Decked out in Hawaiian shirts and high-around-the-waist chinos, he may look a little goofy when he runs down the street in flip-flops, but it’s the recognisable goofiness of a middle-aged dad who has let go of the need to look cool or dignified.
What The Descendants really allows Clooney to distil, though, is his generosity of spirit, the feel he has for the way people might react in a given situation, and his underappreciated ability to convey a torrent of twisted emotions without saying much. Time and again, for instance, the film seems to be building towards a big melodramatic showdown that ordinarily would be there to reaffirm Matt’s heroic status in the eyes of his kids, and yet each time this happens the film switches tack and pulls back, denying us the instant pleasure of seeing the movie’s protagonist come out on top, in order to leave us with the more gratifying sight of him taking a few below-the-belt emotional hits because there’s nothing to be gained from self-righteousness. Clooney gives us all this with a compassionate glance here and a pride-swallowing grimace there, and he graciously concedes scene after scene to the beautifully judged performances of his co-stars; if acting is reacting, he proves himself a master of the craft.
But it’s not just Clooney who seems to be reaching new levels of subtlety and complexity. Payne is too. In the past he’s attempted to deliberately counter the sincerity of his characters’ plights by juxtaposing tragedy with broad comedy and the results, while mostly effective, have often been jarring. The high-school-set political satire Election was razor sharp and brilliant, the work of a young film-maker really showing what he could do, but About Schmidt was too condescending towards its minor characters to justify its schmaltzy ending, and Sideways – for all its spot-on observations and superlative performances – could have done without the moments of slapstick that Payne used to force his protagonist to hit rock bottom. In The Descendants, though, he’s successfully blurred the line between the comedy and the drama. The result is a film that still manages to deliver excruciating laughs and moments of genuine heartbreak, but in a way that’s much more surprising and memorable. But it’s really Clooney’s film, and his tender, funny, low-key performance ensures the emotional pay-off is well earned.