Supposedly, George Clooney has wanted to work with Alexander Payne since 2004. Back when Payne was crafting his first Oscar winner Sideways, it’s reported that Gorgeous George declared his interest in the role of Jack. Payne did the unthinkable, rebuffing Clooney in favour of a lesser known actor and the role eventually fell to Thomas Hayden Church. Church knocked it out of the park and went on to collect a well deserved Oscar nomination in the process. Whether or not Clooney could have pipped Morgan Freeman to the 2005 award we’ll never know but, one thing’s for sure, he’s the man to beat in 2011.
The Descendants is the story of Matt King, a man whose wife is in a comma; a man who’s been cuckolded; a man whose family think is a dick. Not necessarily a role you’d typically associate with George Clooney. The seven time nominee, one time winner has seemingly made a conscious effort to play against type in recent years but this is the first time I think he’s really nailed it.
When people ask me what makes for a really great performance (and someone did, once) I direct them to two performances. De Niro in Raging Bull and Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood. If you watch those performances you’ll notice something. The performance isn’t about their facial expressions or the words being spoken or even how they’re spoken. It’s the physicality of the performance that sells it. Only time will tell whether this performance has the longevity of those iconic roles but he certainly inhabits Matt King right down to his posture, gate and awkward moccasined run. Furthermore, bare in mind that this is coming from someone who still refers to him as ‘Doug Ross’ in day to day conversation.
If ‘acting is reacting’ then honourable mentions must go out to Clooney’s younger co-stars. Shailene Woodley (Alex) is arguably the best known of the three and she can count herself a little unlucky to have come of age in a highly competitive year for the Best Supporting Actress category. As you expect, the troubled teenage daughter has the broadest range of performance but certainly matches Clooney in a number of difficult scenes. The younger sibling is played by debutant Amara Miller who, after revelling in the role of a potty-mouthed pre-teen also plumbs emotional depths beyond her age towards the films emotional pinnacle. As you might expect there’s a few other familiar faces along the way. Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, and Beau Bridges are all good whilst Robert Forster does enough in two scenes to remind you why he too is an Oscar nominee.
The film itself is expertly paced and although I usually find the excessive use of voice over annoying, it works in relation to the subject matter. Though I couldn’t shake the feeling that the voice over in Up in the Air made the film feel like some kind of dysfunctional self-destruct video, here Clooney’s impassioned inner monologue plays out like the desperate pleas of a husband to his dying wife. It ads an emotional level often lacking from films where the audience is addressed directly and as a result immerses you into the story rather than forming a barrier.
Of course, wherever there is tragedy, there’s scope for excellent comedy and Payne, together with his duo of comedy actors/writers, Jim Rash and Nat Faxon don’t miss a beat. If I cried three times (which of course, I totally didn’t), I belly laughed more. The strength of such an emotionally charged story is that the delivery of comedy is simultaneously funnier and more poignant. For that reason I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the film could well walk away with Best Film and Best Adapted Screenplay next month. The film is released today and if you feel like your soul could use a bit of a jump start this year, I strongly recommend you take in this picture.