It can be difficult to accept George Clooney as the everyman. So much is known about celebrities these days that it becomes hard to, for example, divorce the fact that Clooney has an Italian villa from his work. But over the past half-decade or more, Clooney's work in front of and behind the camera might constitute the best portfolio in Hollywood.
In Alexander Payne's The Descendants, Clooney is as close to your next-door neighbor as you're likely to see him be. His Matt King isn't charming or quick-witted. He does not have the world by the tail, and—if you can believe it—a woman leaves him for a real-estate agent. Welcome to the land of make-believe.
It is an odd pairing, in a way. And perhaps to the actor's credit more than the filmmaker's, the performance hits the mark and captures a desperate mood rather easily.
Matt tells us that his wife, Elizabeth, is in a coma. About three weeks earlier, she had a boating accident, and the doctor tells Matt it's time to let family and friends say their goodbyes. However, Matt is not very good with family. He describes himself as the substitute parent, and has been more of a spectator than a participant in his daughters' lives. There is also the extended family, locked arm-in-arm or head-to-head over ancestral land in Kauai they could either lose to the state or sell for a mint. But it's not that easy of a decision.
His youngest daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), is not atypical for an 11-year-old. She's precocious and—through no real fault of her own—doesn't have a filter for her feelings. Matt's biggest concern is how she'll respond to the news about her mother. More problematic is Alex (Shailene Woodley), who at 17 is enrolled at a boarding school until she grows up. Of course, 17 always thinks it's grown-up, so there's an awful lot of acting out and profanity, things Matt tries his best to ignore.
The thread underneath all of this is forgiveness, although a simple forgiveness tale does not need the many complexities and directions The Descendants offers. What the film illustrates so well is just how much room for forgiveness there is in a lot of situations. A spoiler alert is not needed to say that, while they may butt heads throughout the story, Matt and Alex eventually reach some common ground. They not only find ways to live with each other as father and daughter, but also earn a lot of respect from each other without needing to wholly change their stripes.
Matt has to come to grips with an awful lot, and maybe he was always a big-enough man to forgive his wife for her infidelity; the guy driving her boat; her father, for his mostly insensitive treatment of Matt over the years; and his daughters, for those things parents always need to forgive. But he realizes now—going through the wringer regarding all of them at once—where forgiveness and letting go meet. The trick, from a filmmaking standpoint, is showing that without telling it. There's a lot of subtlety involved, particularly when Matt says his touching final words to his comatose wife. To humanize it a bit more, Matt launches into one last screaming monologue aimed at Elizabeth in the moments before he says goodbye. It's the step he needs to take first.
The Descendants goes a little deeper into characters than Payne has needed to before. Even though he hasn't changed what he does in the construction of his films to any great degree here, and his character types and dialogue have the DNA of his other efforts, this is his most-affecting film, because it so acutely showcases our most-naked, most-emotionally wrecked moments.
For George Clooney, it's just more evidence that he's the blueprint. Since distilling his formula with Good Night, and Good Luck, the second film he directed, Clooney has consistently made very good film choices as an actor, writer and director. It's no accident. True, his performances never rise to the level of Daniel Day-Lewis, and the films aren't necessarily classics. But as his work has matured, Clooney has figured out a way to find or develop very good films that say something timely and/or compelling. Most of them cost less than $20 million to make. By contrast, Adam Sandler's latest flatulence, Jack and Jill, was an $80 million movie. So while we're talking about forgiveness, now is a good time to let bygones be bygones regarding Clooney's Leathernecks.
On the surface, The Descendants offers a new look at Clooney, but in reality, he has been building toward this for a while. It may be a surprise to see him play a character so threadbare and caught without all the right answers, but George Clooney has never been more in control.