George Clooney is getting a good deal of Oscar buzz around his performance in Alexander Payne's new film "The Descendants," which, despite its larky commercials, turns out to be about some serious subjects. Payne is, as many Jesuits know, a graduate of Creighton Prep in Omaha. So does his Jesuit education help him tackle the Big Questions? Our online editor Maurice Timothy Reidy takes a look at the new film in an online review that will also ppear in next week's print edition of the magazine.
The director Alexander Payne is known for black comedies featuring dazed and confused male protagonists. Think of Matthew Broderick in “Election” or Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church in “Sideways.” Yet he deserves equal recognition for his sensitive adaptations of novels. “The Descendants,” based on a book of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings, is Payne’s fourth film adaptation, and a sign that his reading list is growing in interesting directions.
Hemmings is not a well-known author, and perhaps that is to Payne’s advantage. There are no rabid fans to dissect the differences between film and text. Still, adaptation is a difficult art, and Payne has managed to find books that work nicely on screen, with little of the portentous voiceovers that tends to spoil films about books. In The Descendants, Payne, a graduate of the Jesuit high school Creighton Prep, has found source material that builds upon his oeuvre without replicating it. He brings us another middle-aged man at loose ends, but one whom seems more grown up than his predecessors.
George Clooney has already generated significant Oscar talk for his lead role, but the whole cast is superb, with Robert Forster, Beau Bridges and Judy Greer deserving special mention. It is unfortunate that the Academy does not recognize the acting of an ensemble cast. Clooney and company prove that great performances do not emerge from a vacuum.
“The Descendants” is imbued with more pathos than a typical Payne film. Clooney plays Matt King, the paterfamilias of a family at a crossroads. His wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), lies in a coma after a crashing in a boat race. For the first time in a long time, he must learn how to be a father to his two daughters. He must also contend with an irascible father-in-law (Forster), who holds him partially responsible for Elizabeth’s accident, and friends who press him for updates on his wife’s condition. Oh, and he belatedly discovers that Elizabeth was having an affair at the time of the crash.