With the Academy Awards just before us, a handful of 2011 films have risen above to stake claims on the most coveted awards of the season. One such film is The Descendants, starring George Clooney at the hand of director Alexander Payne. Payne’s previous works have garnered him many prestigious awards, including a Golden Globe Best Screenplay for 2002’s About Schmidt and an Oscar for his beloved debut, Sideways.
The Descendants follows the story of Clooney as Matt King, a lawyer and father of two daughters, whose family boasts a long and proud lineage in Hawaii. When a boating accident leaves Matt’s wife in a perpetual coma, he is forced to take the reins as a rather lost – though persevering – father. Through his eldest daughter, played by scene-stealer Shailene Woodley (Secret Life of the American Teenager), he learns a secret about his dying wife that changes his perspective on his relationship with her and all the people in his life. Meanwhile, Matt and his large extended family must make a decision about whether or not to sell a massive plot of land that has been handed down to them over centuries.
The film is a classic setup for Payne: at once awkward, disturbing, and funny. Its driving force lies, oddly, in the character of Clooney’s incapacitated wife. In no small feat, it is she who lies at the crux of the plot’s movement as, with each new development and secret revealed, new and divulging holes are prodded into each member of the living cast of characters.
As a director, Payne’s portrayals of fumbling middle age men maintain realism in presentation. It is obviously a character type he specializes in, and it’s a show of Clooney’s skills as an actor that he, unmarried and childless, pulls off the job so well.
With a total of 5 Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Director, and Actor in a Leading Role, a Best Picture win at the Golden Globes, and a box office gross of more than $50 million to date, plus theatre expansions in the U.S and overseas, it’s clear that the film has that magic quality of critical appeal and mass enjoyment. Official mainstream recognition for the efforts of the screenwriters, cast, and crew may not yet have been fully realized, but the voice of The Descendants has spoken, and America has heard – and even listened.