Not the Second Coming of SIDEWAYS

The Descendants *** (out of five)

An overhyped movie can be a very disappointing thing. The Descendants is a very decent family drama, fueled by fine acting and a unique sense of place. But please, don’t go in expecting the Second Coming of Sideways.

That film – also directed by Alexander Payne – used the Santa Barbara’s Wine Country to provide backdrop for a semi-comic tale of two losers out to get lost. The Descendants has George Clooney in Hawaii as a very rich man who is about to become mega, stinking, stupid rich. His character here, Matt King, is no loser. He’s a winner all the way.

His wife is in a coma and is going to die – that’s his problem. His two extremely intelligent and pretty daughters are a mystery to him, but they’re by no means lost causes. And he has to decide whether to sell an inherited parcel of prime oceanfront land to someone for five hundred million dollars or to someone else for a little less than that. 

I know – first world problems, right?

A Big Surprise that you still might not know about happens early on in the picture, and I’m not going to spoil it here (although the trailer does – and does the film a terrible disservice by doing so), and it propels Clooney and his daughters on an improvised, knockabout quest – not dissimilar to the extremely wayward jaunt taken in Sideways. Along the way, Clooney connects with his daughters, and learns how to be a better Dad.

That’s it, and the predictability of that – coupled with the fact that it’s practically impossible to sympathise with the man’s central dilemma (where pursuing either of the “moral” choices still results in lifelong wealth) – are the film’s weaknesses, and they’re significant ones. It does have significant strengths, however. Clooney is in fine form; he knows how to deliver a line, he knows how to use the camera, and he is very aware of the power of restraint. I always see Clooney, however; I don’t lose the actor to the character the way I do with, say, Charlize Theron, who is every bit as movie-star gorgeous as Clooney but who completely vanishes into her characters (see Young Adult), or Clooney’s Ocean’s colleague Brad Pitt, who this year completely disappeared into two completely distinct characters in The Tree of Life and Moneyball. Now, I love Clooney, so I love watching Clooney – but I’m watching Clooney play Matt King, not watching Matt King. I don’t know why this is so – why his persona is always stronger than that of the characters he’s playing – but I strongly suspect it’s in his vocal inflections – he definitely has a “George Clooney” delivery style that he carries from movie to movie, so there’s always a bit of Danny Ocean in there, and Danny Ocean is invincible, which, if you follow my logic, makes Matt King invincible too, and therefore not a particularly sympathetic character. With Humphrey Bogart and Marlon Brando, you always thought they were one step away from losing everything. Clooney seems incapable of losing anything. (I also believe that, in every Clooney movie, some reference should be made to the fact that he’s ludicrously handsome. He just doesn’t sit in the normal world. There was a perfect opportunity in this movie – “You can’t buy your way out of this, Mr. King”. They should have just added “And your looks won’t save you either.”)

All the supporting acting is good, particularly Shailene Woodley as the eldest daughter – you can count on seeing her in everything over the next couple of years. The humour is very gentle, but there are laugh-out loud moments. And it’s the first film I’ve ever seen that is set in contemporary Hawaii, and Payne gives us plenty of local flavour. In some ways it’s more about the place than the man.

The film just won the Golden Globe for Best Dramatic Film. This is certainly not the best drama I’ve seen all year – I definitely had better times at Contagion, Moneyball, Young Adult and Drive to name but a few. But by all means see it; revel in Clooney and the insider glimpse of Hawaii (albeit the Hawaii inhabited by a millionaire); you might even get a good cry out of it. Go in below the hype. Then rent Sideways again and revel in Payne’s true masterpiece.

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