Star performances from George Clooney and Shailene Woodley in Alexander Payne's latest comedy drama
In Alexander Payne’s first film since his 2004 critical darling Sideways, George Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaii-based businessman and heir to a hugely valuable piece of Hawaiian land. On the eve of him signing a deal to sell the land and make his many relatives rich, crisis hits: a boating accident leaves Matt’s wife in a coma from which she may never wake. Self-confessed ‘back-up parent’ Matt must take responsibility for his two daughters, the older of whom (Shailene Woodley) reveals that his wife had recently been having an affair with one of the key players in the land deal.
This rich mix of relationship drama, character comedy and weighty meditation is fertile ground for Payne, a filmmaker with a fine-tuned ability to balance humour and heart in ways that ring true. But The Descendants is most strongly defined by Payne’s unexpected compassion; at every turn, through authentic dialogue and surprising story developments, Payne undercuts our desire to make snap judgements about these characters. Clooney gives arguably his strongest performance to date as Matt, a recognisably flawed father reaching to do good, and he’s brilliantly supported by 20-year-old Woodley, a star in the making for certain.