Re-evaluating his existence as his wife lies comatose following a boating accident in Hawaii, George Clooney’s land magnate Matt King ruminates that “family feels like an archipelago…separate, but part of a whole, drifting slowly apart.” This is an apt metaphor for Matt’s dilemma, with indifferent husband and father suddenly forced to reconnect with his dysfunctional family, while confronting the revelation that his catatonic wife was cheating on him.
In this slight, yet funny and moving film, Clooney, so used to inhabiting supercool alpha males, gives a poignant, understated career-best performance. Always content as the “back-up parent,” King struggles to relate to two confused daughters Alexandra (the impressive Shaileene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), while simultaneously trying to seal a significant land deal and also track down and confront his wife’s lover. As vulnerable and exposed as he’s ever been, Clooney is subtle and touching, emotions simmering just below the surface, communicating so much weighty inner turmoil with just his eyes.
The Hawaii of Sideways director Alexander Payne’s latest is certainly no paradise and his characters struggle to express their muddled emotions. All except Alexandra’s hilarious, omnipresent buddy Sid (scene-stealing Nick Krause, channelling a young Keanu Reeves), who says whatever is on his weed-addled mind, no matter how offensive. The slacker’s side-splitting, inappropriate commentary on a family member’s dementia is a prime example of Payne’s talent for wringing heartwarming comedy from bleak tragedy, examining life from illuminating angles.
Though perhaps a little more superficial than Payne’s previous work, The Descendants is a tender, emotional, rewarding pleasure. Leisurely paced, eased along by gentle, soothing Hawaiian strings, this tale of a man adrift cruises by like a warm, comforting sea breeze.