By Caryn James | James on Screens October 26, 2011 at 1:00AM
There’s a point in every silly season - oh of course, I meant to say awards season – when I actually get interested in the race. It happened yesterday when I saw The Descendants and realized no one is likely to beat George Clooney’s deep and touching performance. OK, maybe I also got interested because I am sick of hearing about Herman Cain and Rick Perry in that other contest; will everyone please stop taking those buffoons seriously? But mostly it was Clooney.
He chose the part well. Matt King, living in paradisiacal Hawaii, has a wife in a coma after an accident, a feisty 10-year-old daughter and a college-age daughter who lets him know why she’s been so angry at her mother: “Mom was cheating on you.” You can see that much in the trailers.
What you don’t instantly see is how beautifully Alexander Payne directs the film, or how gracefully the parts fit together. There’s a semi-comic strand about Clooney’s character looking for the Other Man, and a socially-conscious strand about his family’s plan to sell the beautiful, undeveloped land they inherited. That’s a pretty complete package.
Clooney never overacts; even his eye-popping comic turn in O Brother Where Art Thou fit the Coen Brothers’ stylized approach. But he is especially subtle here, as he was in his last Oscar-nominated leading role, in Up In the Air.
But let’s be cynical about awards for a minute – or, let’s go all in and make that for the season. I’m not saying Clooney and Payne calculated this role as awards bait; I’m not saying they didn’t. But I will say it fits every criteria. Clooney gets to cry and grieve and be droll. The film is mainstream and accessible but not depressing. And there is nothing working against it.
Who can beat him? Brad Pitt is terrific in Moneyball, but his baseball-manager’s role doesn’t really have awards depth. Michael Fassbender is searing as the sex addict in Shame, and I can believe that Oscar voters have gotten younger and less fusty, but are they really going to vote for a film so raw it's been rated NC-17? Moneyball’s too cold, Shame is too hot, but The Descendants is just right.
There’s plenty I haven’t seen yet, including Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover; he seems to get nominated easily, just for playing not-Leo. Some other actor could make me change my mind. But for now, Clooney’s deeply realized performance in this straight-down-the-middle film makes it his Oscar to lose.