Transcendent ‘Descendants’ launched Clooney’s career

by Bill Wine
Posted 4/9/21

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.

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Transcendent ‘Descendants’ launched Clooney’s career


Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.

“The Descendants” (2011) 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.

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.

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 (Shaileen 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 something else monumentally upsetting about his wife which we will politely refrain from revealing.

In his narrative and in his pacing, Payne 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.

The smooth, exquisitely sad, surprisingly amusing screenplay about bereavement and betrayal 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, Shailene Woodley 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 involved with Matt's wife, and Judy Greer as the realtor's coming-to-grips wife, and you have one sparkling ensemble.

This smart, funny, authentic, and heartbreaking tragicomedy -- nominated for five Oscars, and the winner for Best Adapted Screenplay -- takes us to the simultaneously escapist and emotionally engaging place that few movies do.

“The Descendants” is nothing less than transcendent.

Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.