By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood September 3, 2011 at 11:00AM
Fox Searchlight's first trailer for The Descendants made Alexander Payne's return to the screen, after winning best original screenplay (with Jim Taylor) for 2004's Sideways, look like a well-meaning family drama. It's far more than that. "Alexander should make more movies," said George Clooney at the Telluride patron's brunch Friday. Of course he should, but this is the one he was able to get made, and it's well worth the wait. Clooney wasn't right for Sideways, but wanted to work with Payne, who gave him the script two years ago in Toronto. They were shooting in Hawaii by March. At the Q & A after the rousingly received first public showing at Telluride, Clooney admitted that he "worried about my ability to be such a schlub." While Payne deflected Clooney's compliments--"you write and you direct really well"-- he did admit: "I cast well."
Payne's heartfelt comedy about a father and his two daughters facing the death of his comatose wife manages to sidestep the pitfalls of the weepie. Articulately narrated by Clooney's Matt King, a sad sack real estate lawyer in Hawaiian shirts and kakis who considers himself "the back-up parent, the understudy," the movie is full of characters who are hiding deep emotion. In one unique scene fine young actress Shailene Woodley reacts to news of her mother's worsening condition by silently losing it underwater in a pool, away from her father's gaze. Payne often opts for silence and restraint when others would overplay a big moment by hitting it on the head. I cried frequently in this movie. You care for these people, who are utterly real. They also have great lines, such as "paradise can go fuck itself."
Robert Forster as King's father-in-law is a believable old prick who nonetheless hits us hard with his love for his daughter. "Why do all the women in my life want to destroy themselves?" asks King, who at one point turns to his daughter's boyfriend for advice. The slapstick moments often come out of left field or at moments of intense feeling, as when King, learning he has been cuckolded, runs out of the house in flats down the street to glean details from a neighbor.
This is a lower-budget Searchlight effort, not a glossy studio picture. The movie calls up James L. Brooks' Terms of Endearment, with its hairspin turns from comedy to tragedy. Neither Payne or Clooney have children, yet this film adapted by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings rings true, as do the various Hawaii island settings-- "all alone, part of some archipelago drifting apart"-- and the delicious authentic Hawaiian score. "It would be untoward of me not to use 100% Hawaiian music," Payne said.
Telluride audiences and critics (see below) are eating this one up, as will mainstream movie patrons and Academy voters. Clooney and Payne will certainly grab Oscar nominations for best actor, screenplay and director. If Searchlight makes all the right movies, the movie should sail through the award season fray.
Todd McCarthy, THR:
Alexander Payne has always impressed with his talent for injecting his studies of flawed ordinary people with unexpected warmth and comedy, but never has his knack for mixing moods and modulating subtle emotions been more evident.
Peter Debruge, Variety:
Some movies aim to distract us; others seek to help us understand. "The Descendants" tackles some of the prickliest issues a contempo family can face -- coping with a loved one's right-to-die decision -- with such sensitivity that it's hardly noticeable you're being enlightened while entertained. As a Hawaiian father of two negotiating complex emotions while his wife lies comatose after a boating accident, George Clooney reveals yet another layer of himself. His involvement, plus the welcome return of "Sideways" director Alexander Payne, will bring in auds; their tell-a-friend enthusiasm should spell sleeper success among catharsis-seeking adults.