The Descendants (15)


Dir: Alexander Payne

With: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley

Running time: 114 minutes

PEOPLE think living in Hawaii is paradise, says George Clooney's character in The Descendants, a wonderfully sweet and low-key comedy drama directed by Alexander Payne. People often think the same about being Clooney. Rich, successful, scrubs up well – he has hardly been given the toughest of hands to play.

But being easy like Sunday morning involves hard work. The joy of Clooney, and the beauty of Payne's Oscar-nominated film, is that it never looks that way on screen. Adapted from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, this is a surf champ of a picture, making everything look lemon squeezy on the surface when in another director's hands the material could so easily go boards up.

Payne, whose last film was 2004's Sideways, is a model of directorial restraint, never going for the obvious when the subtle is far more effective. In that task, he has found the ideal actor in Clooney, a performer who has a dimmer switch on his craft the way others have a simple on-off button. He really does get better with age, and this is his best performance since Michael Clayton. No surprise he's up for a best actor Oscar.

Clooney plays Matt King, a lawyer whose extended family can trace their time on the islands back hundreds of years. King and his many cousins – among them Beau Bridges – have an important decision to make. Do they sell a huge stretch of land and become ridiculously rich overnight, or do they respect their heritage as guardians of the old place and keep the property as it is? No free mai tais for guessing which is the favoured option among the family.

King has something else, something even bigger, on his mind than drawing up paperwork. With his wife in hospital following an accident, it's up to him to take care of their two daughters, Alex and Scottie (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller). For King, who admits to being "the back-up parent, the understudy" it is not going to be the cushiest of gigs. Especially when the teenager daughter insists on dragging her dopey pal, Sid (Nick Krause) everywhere.

So Payne has his unhappy little band which he sends off on an adventure. An adventure that will bring surprises, welcome and unwelcome, and test the family as never before. It sounds like the most awful kind of afternoon television movie where lessons are learned and hugs are exchanged before the closing credits roll. It's not. There are some scalpel-sharp observations here about the nature of families, and particularly fathers and daughters. Such is the way they are blended with the comedy, the serious moments sneak up on you unawares, and are all the more powerful for that.

This is where Clooney's dimmer switch comes in handy, and it's hard to see another actor, save for perhaps Paul Giamatti, one of Payne's leading men in Sideways, playing the King role in such a satisfying way. The cliché is to compare Clooney with Cary Grant, and like all clichés it's annoyingly true – up to a point. Like Grant, Clooney has the range to go from comedy to drama. With Clooney, though, there was always a blandness that blunted the edge. He could never be taken entirely seriously as a mean or moody type. Grant, however, was always something of an enigma, never to be taken for granted.

Clooney started to change that with Good Night, and Good Luck and has carried on doing so with Syriana, Michael Clayton, The American, The Ides of March and now Payne's film. He's 51 now. Maybe it's a mid-life dramatic crisis. If so, it suits him.

Payne suits him too (though not sure about the Hawaiian shirts Clooney is given to wear). The About Schmidt and Election director allows him the chance to be all things to all viewers – from a dorky dad who looks at his daughters and despairs of ever getting to know what's going on inside their heads, to a wise old cove, twinkly eyes and all, who knows that this too, whatever it is, shall pass.

That's enough Clooney. The oldie's performance is complemented by golden turns from Woodley, Miller and Krause. The latter does a particularly fine job of playing the bittersweet comedy just right, with Woodley coming close to acting Clooney off the screen at times, despite her youth. As an added bonus, there are the performances of Beau Bridges and Robert Forster (Jackie Brown), as Clooney's father-in-law, to savour.

Then there are the islands themselves. Despite Payne's talents behind the camera, he can't make this place look like anything other than paradise, even if it does get overcast at times. You can practically feel the vitamin D surge. Or maybe that's the Clooney sunshine effect at work.

Either way, Payne's funny, wise and moving generational tale works. Never mind the heirlooms in the attic, pass on the good word about The Descendants.