Monday 30 January 2012

Review: The Descendants

Year: 2011 (UK Wide Release: 2012)
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenplay: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, Alexander Payne
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller

Synopsis is here:

It is said on The Descendants IMDB trivia page, that George Clooney went for the role of the womanising Jack in Alexander Payne's last movie, Sideways. Payne decided ultimately that the role should go to someone lesser known (Thomas Haden Church). In my view, it worked. I wasn't distracted by any stardom at all and Church pulled off a fine performance that combines well with Paul Giamatti's sadsack Miles, and won an Oscar nomination to boot.

Seven years on, and Clooney finally gets his chance to work with Payne in The Descendants, a dysfunctional family feature, which judging by the material and Payne's previous work (Election, About Schmidt), should be a clear bread and butter deal for all involved.

However, The Descendants; a film full of great small moments, gorgeous photography and a superb supporting cast filled with bright young things (Shailene Woodley) and wiley veterans of the game (Robert Forster on brilliant form) is lacking somewhat. For me the reason appears to be Clooney.

I'm not against George Clooney in the slightest, I think that he is an movie star that; much like Tom Cruise, is treated with ignorance because they do not often fall upon gimmicky quirks and do not give the same types of performances that you expect from seasoned character actors. When they are given something in which their charm and charisma are give a chance to show prominence (Clooney - Out of Sight, Cruise - Magnolia), they really do excel in the role. Here Clooney tries his hardest to pull off something more workaday, more everyman   and while he still manages to pull off a few nice moments, he feels like he's trying to squeeze into a role that is marginally too tight for him. It just didn't fit right with me.

It doesn't help when everyone else is wonderfully cast and clearly have their game faces on. Woodley and to a lesser extent Amara Miller play the two sisters of Clooney's Matt King with just the right balance and pitch. They're not brats, merely difficult children dropped into a complicated situation. They act out accordingly, and there's a subtle sense of growth with Woodley's performance that really stands out. Elsewhere, Robert Forster is knocks an emotional monologue right out the park. So much so, that it's still the strongest scene I remember, hours after watching the film. Perfectly capturing the complexities of the issue at hand.

But it's scenes like this that stand out the most in Payne's film. The opening narration reminds us that just because people live in "paradise" doesn't mean they experience it. It doesn't make the pain any less real. This awkward and convoluted situation only seems to be made worse as these characters are painted against the beautiful backdrop of Hawaii. The opening shot is of a close up woman beaming happily as she rides the waves in the motorboat which causes her unfortunate accident and the upcoming chain of events. This is the only time we actually see her concious, as the coma she is placed in not only renders her silent, but creates an enigma around her as we witness all the characters react with each other due to what they know and what they don't.

This is where the film works best, and why the moments with Forster and Woodley are so affecting in their own way. We see such an overview of this woman in the films 115 running time that when we see their responses to the grief we warm to them. But it's strangely why Clooney didn't hit the spots with me. As the film goes on, I don't sense the weight or burden on his shoulders. Such a role would be difficult to cast and even harder to put across on screen. Clooney, whose managed to lose himself in roles (Syriana, his work with the Coen's), is just slightly off key.  He doesn't feel so much Matt King, more Clooney trying to schlub up.

But it's hard to be the everyman epicentre in a picture like this, with a screenplay that nails those private issues of family so well. Late on, we are given a line by Beau Bridges that reminds us that blood is only thicker than water when money isn't involved. The line rang so true, I scoffed louder than usual. But it is that what Payne does well. Next time, however he may wish to see what a lesser actor is up to.