When is it ok to yell at your wife as she lies dying in a coma? Probably never, as Matt King (George Clooney) soon realises. At least he ushered his kids out of the hospital ward first. It takes a while for Matt to get to this point of untenable anger, and to decide what should be done about the problem that drove him there. It’s been a slow build: a failing marriage compounded by the accident that put his wife in hospital. There’s a contrary daughter at boarding school, extended family whose multi-million dollar inheritance he’s in charge of managing, plus unexpected parental responsibility for his youngest. Then Matt learns of the affair.

Alexander Payne made a significant splash with his wine and pine comedy-drama, Sideways in 2004. And as he revealed in both Election and About Schmidt, it is characters that drive his best work, and The Descendants is certainly that. Enlightened by a terrific script, the film is fastened by the presence of Clooney, his angry offspring (Shailene Woodley) and, unexpectedly, the emerging charm of her lacklustre boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause). It’s a powerful combination that gives the story both energy and realism as they each come to terms with loss and deception.

For realism is The Descendants key asset. As the King family slides into an increasingly difficult business, Payne keeps a firm hand on ensuring the drama doesn’t reach beyond the scope of the characters or its (admittedly stunning) Hawaiian setting. It enables a rare sense of empathy in cinema, and an ability to feel their pain and their humour in equal measure. There’s little distance between the two and this is one of the film’s great joys. A lot like life really.

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George Clooney
Shailene Woodley
Amara Miller
Nick Krause

Alexander Payne

Alexander Payne
Nic Faxon


MA / 115 minutes

January 12, 2012
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