Some things are simple. George Clooney is one of our greatest movie stars. He is a skillful actor, but he also understands how being a movie star allows you to let the audience fill in the gaps. He is excellent in The Descendants, although he rarely over-emotes. He relies on his connection to the audience … if the camera shows him in the process of thinking, we believe that he is thinking, and he doesn’t have to do much other than let his face serve the audience. It’s a very particular kind of acting. He hasn’t, to my knowledge, worked on the stage. Instead, he sticks with movies and television, where “George Clooney” wins us over. Not when the material stinks, of course, but when the material is good, Clooney is ready to serve.
David Thomson once wrote of Clooney, “Clooney behaves as if he is ‘George Clooney’ – suave, contented, immaculate, his own pal – while Cary Grant never once in his life was persuaded that he had become ‘Cary Grant.’ What Clooney lacks is the unease, the dissatisfaction with himself that could permit the heights of drama or comedy in any relationship.” Speaking of The Descendants, he wrote, “I think it has less than meets the eye, and it leaves Clooney playing difficulty in life without adequate conviction or rawness.” The IMDB tells us, “George Clooney was attracted to the part because he so often has played characters that have their act together. The character of Matt clearly does not.” This suggests that Clooney is trying to work his way through the problems Thomson describes. The difficulty comes from the audience always reacting to the movie star in Clooney … it’s hard at times to distinguish between Clooney and his character, Matt. I don’t think there is an easy answer to this, and I believe Clooney is what holds the movie together. But he is a more complicated screen presence than you might think.
The movie itself has ups and downs. Shailene Woodley is very good as Clooney’s daughter. The cinematography could serve as an advertisement for Hawaii, which to my mind isn’t necessarily a good thing for the movie. Clooney does some voice overs that I found obtrusive and annoying, and while I am told this movie was a dramedy, I saw precious little that was funny (I’m not totally immune, I did laugh a few times). At best, Payne is very subtle when he slips into comedy mode.
Ultimately, The Descendants was more than a mere time-waster, thanks to Clooney, but nowhere near being a classic. #188 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 7/10. For an Alexander Payne double bill, try Election or Sideways. Avoid About Schmidt.