The Descendants (15)

US 2011 115mins

Director : Alexander Payne. Starring : George Clooney

George Clooney was apparently turned down for the lead in Alexander Payne’s last film ‘Sideways’, perhaps because of his surfeit of presence, but he’s great in this part as a rich successful property lawyer seeing his comfortable life crumble and then perhaps finding a newer and truer life emerge from the other side of it.

Clooney gives a confidently understated performance as Matt King, a workaholic Hawaiian lawyer who finds himself thrown into crisis when his wife goes into a permanent coma after a water-skiing accident and he has to pull together the shreds of his family, make the ethical decision of his life over a huge family land-legacy… and along the way track down confront his errant wife’s rather useless ex-lover.

It could be a melodrama, it could be a farce, but with Payne directing and a great bit of ensemble acting from the family its something much more agile. It’s possibly why Payne chose the rather insistently Hawaiian music as a background soundtrack: the family are gentrified fourth generation and they can’t speak the language though they own vast tracks of a beautiful forrested island.

Shailene Woodley is totaly believable as the stroppy older daughter Alex, dragged back from her expensive private school, Amara Miller plays the younger daughter Scottie with great vigour (and no small amount of badmouthing), and Nick Krause is brilliantly insensitive as Alex’s tag-along friend the bumptious Sid.

It’s a story full of feeling but Payne manages to twist a light and often absurd strand of comedy in amongst the pain and drama which prevents it from becoming sentimental or morbid. “It’s funny AND sad…” said Kaui Hart Hemmings on whose novel the screenplay is based… Like real life then.

John Wallett

Phillip French’s review in the Observer:

Sat 16 JuneĀ  8.00pm
CERT 15 115 mins 2011