Preparing for the Oscars – George Clooney’s performance in The Descendants

I usually do a hurried catch up of Oscar nominated films as we get closer to Oscar night.

Unfortunately I have not yet seen The Artist which is likely to be a big winner in a few hours.

But last night I got to watch The Descendants and it was a hugely satisfying experience. This is the 3rd consecutive great film from Alexander Payne (4th by some counts, but I was never a fan of Election). As I mentioned on my Facebook update this morning, The Descendants is a film about life and death, love and loss…filled with interesting characters the viewer can instantly relate to.

This is a George Clooney film almost all the way. As a viewer, we are allowed to see how his character, lawyer Matt King, privately deals with the grief of his wife’s impending death while having to put up a brave front for his two daughters for whom so far he has only been a “back up parent”. There are good performances from the actresses playing his two daughters, especially Shailene Woodley playing the older daughter Alexandra. The only odd note came from Alexandra’s slacker boyfriend who starts off as an obnoxious socially insensitive teenager and then mysteriously transforms into a quietly supportive extended member of Clooney’s family. Also a notable performance from Robert Forster as Matt King’s father-in-law. I last saw Forster in his acclaimed performance as Max Cherry in Quentin Tarentino’s Jackie Brown back in 1997.

Another key character in the story is Hawaii itself. Director Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael expertly use the landscape, music and the people to enhance the mood and the story line. One of the memorable scenes has Clooney running down the curving road from his house all the way to the house of his family friends to question them on his wife’s alleged affair. Another moment has Clooney speaking with one of his cousins while in a bar with his family…the cheerful background song from a trio of live performers contrasts with the storm of emotions running through Clooney’s mind when he learns that his wife’s lover will profit enormously from a land deal which Clooney is just about to close which will make most of his extended family into millionaires.

What makes the movie a winner was the fact that in addition to being an exploration of metaphysical themes, it had a genuinely engaging plot line.

Clooney’s on-screen personas tend to be clustered at two extremes – we have the confident, capable characters like Bill Tyne (The Perfect Storm), Danny Ocean, Michael Clayton, Jack (The American) or Ryan Bingham (Up in the Air) and we have the goofy, bumbling characters like Everett (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), Harry Pfarrer (Burn After Reading) and Lyn Cassady (The Men Who Stare At Goats). Both of these personas work very well for their respective movies. Sometimes he tends to combine elements of both, as he did successfully in Out of Sight and with disastrous results in Leatherheads. In The Descendants, Mr. Clooney has successfully vaulted over the accumulated baggage of those previous roles and given us a real and completely believable character…one which I hope will bring in Oscar gold later today.

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