There's no doubt that George Clooney turns in an impressive performance in writer/director Alexander Payne's latest film, The Descendants (rated R for profanity, mostly spoken by children). As Matt King, a wealthy Hawaiian lawyer who goes from back-up parent to first-string father after a boating accident leaves his wife, Elizabeth, in a coma, Clooney runs the gamut of emotion-rage, fear, confusion, hopelessness-with subtle assurance. We believe every flicker of expression to cross his chiseled face. And when he discovers his dying wife has been cheating on him, those expressions are as conflicting and demanding as any an actor is likely to face.
But beyond Clooney, there's not much in The Descendants to warrant the Oscar buzz that is building around it. Like his earlier works Sideways and About Schmidt, Payne champions the heroism of those who find meaning solely within themselves, rather than some outer structure like religion. There are moments of comedy, but they are a cruel, vicious sort of comedy made at the expense of anyone struggling to find ground more firm than impulse to stand on.
A scene in which the wife of the other man comes to the hospital to tell the comatose Elizabeth that she forgives her is especially jarring. The woman's a joke, you see, because she insists on trying to force her heart to do the irrational. The image is grotesque, and you can't help wondering about the mindset of the filmmaker who wants us to laugh at her pitiable earnestness. Matt, on the other hand, goes on a mission of revenge, often looking to his 17-year-old daughter, Alex (Shailene Woodley), as his guiding wisdom, and finds true catharsis.
The fact that Payne ascribes a deep, acerbic insight to the under-aged demonstrates a devotion to ideas far more naïve than those he mocks. I couldn't help thinking what a weight it must be on a young girl's shoulders to know that her father-the man who is supposed to be shaping her mind and character-is instead hoping she will do so for him.