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'The Descendants' review

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The Descendants

George Clooney doesn't demand attention in this film. On the contrary, he looks absent from the scene, even while Sideways helmer Alexander Payne (adapting the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings) zooms in for extreme close-up. But that's the beauty of this engaging family portrait which sees Clooney as a father of two, trapped in emotional limbo as his wife lays in a coma.

The sun-kissed Hawaiian backdrop somehow heightens the surreal nature of his plight, but it also turns out to be fertile ground for laughs. Clooney and on-screen daughter Shailene Woodley make a great team unearthing these comedy gems, so it's little wonder they're both recognised this awards season.

It's a speedboat accident that puts the missus (Patricia Hastie) in a coma and shakes lawyer Matt (Clooney) out of a state of complacency. In a masterclass of acting by Clooney he sits at her bedside, apparently doing nothing, trying to untangle his thoughts in voiceover; he's sorry for taking her for granted, angry that she should test him like this and desperate to strike a bargain (if she wakes up, he'll do better).

Only a few tears are shed, but it's the shock and confusion that chokes you up, and when the doctor suggests switching off life support, denial takes over. That's why he has a tougher time handling his youngest daughter (Amara Miller), who bubbles with optimism. Worse still, he learns his wife was cheating on him with grinning realtor Brian (Matthew Lillard).

Shailene Woodley and Nick Krause
Anger spews lava-like from the depths, though mostly from teenage daughter Alex (Woodley), who is keen to knock some sense into dad. She rebels in obvious ways - smoking and hanging out with a total dude (an amusing Nick Krause) - but, actually, Woodley imbues her with a clear sense of right and wrong, forcing dad to confront what he's tempted to shrink away from.

That means a face-to-face with Brian; the cue for some gentle slapstick as Matt creeps around behind bushes. There's even a well-timed punch in the face from Robert Forster - hilarious as Matt's pitiless dad-in-law - who is also very angry, though mostly with Matt. But generally, the humour is dry, coming naturally from Matt's attempts to handle the grief of family and friends, as well as his own repressed feelings.

There are other complications involving land that Matt owns the controlling share of (as the descendant of a noted Hawaiian), raising questions of belonging as well as heating up the conflict between Matt and Brian. As the plot thickens it almost begins to feel too contrived, but this is where the director excels, pulling back and keeping the focus on Matt's attempts to cope as events conspire to defeat him.

He puts faith in his actors and draws out class performances (even from Scooby Doo sidekick Lillard) and in doing so, bypasses expectations for a completely satisfying experience. As in Sideways and About Schmidt, he demonstrates an intuitive feel for characters who are removed from their own lives and finds humour in that disparity without labouring the point. Finally he proves that no man is an island; like this wonderfully offbeat film, he bridges the gap between generations.


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