This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 22nd January 2012
The Descendants is a surprising and wonderful beast, capsizing all your expectations of “the latest George Clooney movie” at every turn.
The trailer is saccharine and banal and, thankfully, misleading – we are warned that Matt (Clooney) is a Hawaii-based lawyer, perennially busy and out of touch with his two daughters, grappling with the ramifications of his wife’s accident-induced coma. Will he bond with his girls? Will the wife survive? How is it not even George Clooney can make a Hawaiian shirt look cool?
In hindsight, the trailer is doubtless all part of brilliant director Alexander Payne’s cunning plan. Echoing the paradoxical, bittersweet tone of his acclaimed films Sideways and Election, Payne is adept at eliciting entirely naturalistic performances from a universally excellent cast of varying experience (teenager Alex, played by the little-known Shailene Woodley, displays a maturity beyond her years), aided of course by a terrific script, and the gift of authentic family melodrama. Clooney is a joy to watch, as he is tortured by attention-seeking children, challenging in-laws, and the small matter of a local community in opposition to his major land deal.
Granted, for the first quarter of an hour we are subjected to the most naive and cliched of voiceovers – whether Payne is winking, one can’t be sure – but as soon as Matt finds his outer voice and the quest begins to find truth and settle his family’s turmoil, the integrity of both character and story grows.
Don’t be fooled by the garish shirts and the lilting hula soundtrack – this is a tricky, clever, multi-faceted little film. There is plenty of room for painful revelations and bedside recriminations in this blackest of comedies which has you tearful one moment, then laughing with awkward relief the next.