George Clooney departs from his usual persona in Alexander Payne's latest film

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(Photo courtesy of Ad Hominem Production Company)

It’s been seven years since Alexander Payne’s last film (the sublime “Sideways), and although “The Descendants” may not reach the staggering highs of that film, it’s a charming picture of those who stay in Hawaii once vacation season is over.

Matt King (George Clooney) is an extraordinarily busy man long before his wife (Patricia Hastie) is seriously injured in a boating accident. Finding himself responsible for daughters Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), Matt struggles with having to be a parent for the first time while also dealing with a family constantly nipping at his heels to come to a decision regarding a massive tract of land they’ve inherited from Hawaiian royalty.

George Clooney is one of the few true movie stars we have, and he continues to challenge his image with each new role. Matt could have been an unsympathetic character, and his simmering anger at learning his wife has been unfaithful is wonderfully expressed by spiteful, sarcastic voice-over saying all the things he can’t. However, Clooney keeps Matt human throughout, even as his character displays a cruel streak in more than one scene and gives a performance that’s nothing less than fantastic.

Also great is the relationship Matt forms with his daughters, who do a lot to sand down his harder edges as the film goes on. As younger daughter Scottie, Amara Miller is offbeat and often hilarious, but Shailene Woodley steals the show as older daughter Alex. Alex is something of a firecracker, and her complicated relationship with her mother gives Woodley lots of great notes to play as she finds herself torn between furious anger at being shipped off to boarding school and crippling fear at losing her mother forever.

Even if it may not have the disemboweling wit of “Election” or the pervasive sadness of “About Schmidt,” “The Descendants” mixes the two to make for an undeniably affecting experience. Much of the film is uproariously funny, but Payne takes joy in pulling the rug out from under the audience and quickly swapping in laughs for heartache in the blink of an eye.
“The Descendants” is unquestionably a strong work from Payne and promises great things on the horizon. 

Printed on Wednesday, November 23, 2011 as: Clooney shines in father-daughter flick