‘Descendants’ strikes balance between laughs and tears

Jason Fraley, WTOP Film Critic

WASHINGTON – Call it the performance of his career. Six years after winning Best Supporting Actor for “Syriana” (2005), George Clooney is contending for Best Actor for a third time, after “Michael Clayton” (2007) and “Up in the Air” (2009). He’s also nominated for co-writing “The Ides of March” (2011), continuing a path of hunk-turned-actor-turned-filmmaker that reminds me more and more of Redford’s career with each passing film. Rosemary must be awfully proud of her “descendant.”

Here, Clooney plays a Hawaiian land baron spreading the sad news that his family is pulling the plug on his comatose wife. During the experience, he uncovers a secret that rocks his world, makes him question a pivotal land deal and helps him reconnect with his two daughters, the rebellious teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and her younger sister Scottie (Amara Miller).

Walt Disney once said that for every laugh there should be a tear. Writer/director Alexander Payne (“Sideways,” “About Schmidt”) understands this well, blending two vastly different approaches to the “lover in a coma” premise, from the dark promiscuity of Almodovar’s “Talk to Her” (2002), to the lighthearted comedy of “While You Were Sleeping” (1995). Just as you’re prepared to choke back tears, a surprise joke will come out of left field and slap you across the face.

“Rolling Stone” named it one of the top three movies of the year, behind “The Artist” and “Drive,” saying the film’s laughs and tears are “orchestrated without a false note.” However, I couldn’t help but notice a few. The first “false note” comes during the “Theme Stated” moment (usually page 5), where the mother of one of Scottie’s classmates describes the land deal’s impact on the island. The second comes when Troy apologizes to Clooney for causing his wife’s boat accident. In both cases, the readings feel phony. Sure, they’re bit parts, but they took me out of the film, however briefly.

Thankfully, Payne gets fantastic performances out of all his major players. Clooney delivers powerhouse scenes in his wife’s hospital room, using her as a sounding board as he searches his soul. He’s also entirely believable in his evolving relationship with his daughters, thanks to the naivety of young Amara Miller and the show-stealing performance of 20-year-old Shailene Woodley.

Nick Krause is memorable as her doofus boyfriend, Beau Bridges is a solid foil as Clooney’s cousin, and Matthew Lillard makes a surprise return from Wes Craven’s “Scream” (1996). Even Patricia Hastie has a presence as the comatose wife, lying motionless through some emotional hospital rants, and smiling on a jet ski in the film’s opening image.

Opening with that moment is just one of the brilliant choices by Payne, who’s nominated for Best Director. Rather than some vague honor, there are actual reasons for his director nomination:

  • The high-angle shot of Clooney climbing a spiral staircase after receiving news of his wife recalls Jimmy Stewart’s madness in “Vertigo” (1958) and Ralph Fiennes’ conflicted thoughts in “Quiz Show” (1994).
  • The camera placed behind Clooney’s head allows us to share in his experience, despite a changing background. It reminds me of a similar set-up behind Cary Grant in “Notorious” (1946), for Clooney is clearly our generation’s Grant.
  • The underwater shot of a grieving Woodley shows lessons learned from directors past. It recalls the underwater pressure of Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate” (1967), the auteur trademark of Wes Andersen’s “Rushmore” (1998) and the underwater scream of Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” (2000).
  • Note how the underwater set-up changes from pain to peace at the end of the film. Payne submerges us again for a ceremonial “scattering of Hawaiian leis,” mixing the finales of “From Here to Eternity” (1953) with “The Piano” (1993).
  • Payne follows this release with a brilliant final shot, a static “single take” where the camera rolls without cutting. Clooney eats ice cream while watching “March of the Penguins,” and one-by-one, his daughters come to join him under the blanket on the couch. It’s the perfect visual way to cement what the film is all about. Not the land sale. Not even his wife’s predicament. But reconnecting with his daughters.

“The Descendants” is up for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. The public gives it a 7.7 on IMDB. The critics give it an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes. Calling it form both sides of The Film Spectrum, I’m giving “The Descendants” 4 out of 4 stars.

Check out our predictions for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor. Listen all Sunday for a rundown of all the Best Picture nominees. Read more from WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley by clicking “Fraley on Film” under the “Living” tab above, and check out his blog, The Film Spectrum.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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