It’s taken seven years for Alexander Payne to direct what is only his fifth feature. Or to put it another way, a skinny senator from Illinois had only just emerged on the political scene when Payne’s superb Sideways was released in 2004. Why the interminable wait for his fan base, who lapped that movie up along with About Schmidt and Election (which a certain politician once told Payne was his favorite political piece)? Well, Payne was producing, having knee surgery, getting divorced, doing a short, helming a TV pilot (Hung) and writing another script. But now he’s finally back working on the big screen and has reeled in no less a star than George Clooney (at considerably less salary than the fee he usually commands) to front The Descendants. As that then-senator might have put it, it’s the Audacity of Hype.
Do Payne and Clooney pull it off? According to Rotten Tomatoes they do, as The Descendants (at the time of writing) is rating a stellar 92% (though our own Richard Corliss is most definitely not among them). Clooney plays Matt King, an unassuming husband and father of two (he refers to himself as “the back-up parent, the understudy”), who must re-examine his past and – yes! – embrace his future when his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), lies in an irreversible coma in a Honolulu hospital after suffering a boating accident. This would give anyone pause for thought, but when he learns that she was also unfaithful, the emotions get ramped up to 11. In addition, Matt has to deal with his difficult daughters: Scottie (Amara Miller), is 10 (key attributes: angry and confused), and the older daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) who has the anger if not the confusion.
And so Matt and his girls embark upon a road trip (where valuable life lessons will almost certainly be learned along the way) to find Elizabeth’s illicit lover. Oh, and Matt must decide what to do with the 25,000 acres of land on Kauai that’s been inherited from royal Hawaiian ancestors. Decisions, decisions and Clooney’s character is the one to make them. While the female cast has come in for praise, Clooney has been singled out for giving the performance of his career (he’s in pretty much every scene, and is given one of those moment-of-truth speeches, which might be the reason why). Not only is he the current favorite (at least in the eyes of British bookmakers) to walk away with a first Best Actor Oscar (he took Best Supporting Actor for Syriana in 2006) but Payne and the movie itself are also in prime position to win Best Director and Picture respectively. And if The Descendants does walk away with a clutch of little gold men, it’s unthinkable that it will take seven years for Payne’s next feature.
PHOTOS: George Clooney at Play