Coma chameleon: The Descendants 

*The Descendants (R)

Kimball's Peak Three (starting Wednesday, Nov. 23)

It's a bizarre detail, but I can pinpoint the precise moment I fell in love with Alexander Payne's first film since his Oscar-winning Sideways: It was the second that actor Robert Forster appeared.

See, throughout The Descendants, star George Clooney appears older, as bedraggled and downright awkward as a devastatingly handsome A-list movie star can ever appear. His eyebrows are bushier and blacker, while his trademark salt-and-pepper locks emphasize the salt. He has a bit of a paunch, and his gait suggests a surely self-mythologized sports injury. It's a remarkable physical transformation, one of subtlety and backstory homework. And all I could think was how much he looked like Robert Forster.

When Forster actually appears as the cranky father of Clooney's wife, who lies in a coma from the opening seconds till the film's bitter end, and is thus unable to convey her own story, I admittedly became choked up. Here, Payne has told me something he didn't need to, but possibly just wanted to: The dying wife married her father. Perhaps that's why she felt so compelled to leave.

The Descendants is an almost dirge-like story about grief, but so much more than that. Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian real-estate baron, absentee workaholic and the benefactor of 25,000 acres of pure paradise, which he inherited from island royalty of generations ago. Due to legal snags, he has to either sell the land at tremendous profit for himself and his succubus cousins (including Beau Bridges) or keep it and pay estate taxes on it until it's practically worthless.

At the same time, his wife, unseen but for a luminous opening shot and later in her hospital bed, lies in a coma from a boating accident. She's unresponsive, and her living will asked that in this circumstance, she be removed from life support. The movie finds Matt a man barely hanging on to sanity, thrust as he is into the role of sole provider to 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley).

Oh, and it turns out that his wife was cheating on him. So there's that.

With all this on his plate, plus a tag-along friend of Alexandra's, stoner fool Sid (Nick Krause), Matt could easily succumb to roiling bitterness, but he makes a project of finding his wife's lover and seeking answers. It's on this mission that he discovers Alexandra's secret weapon: teen bitchiness. As miraculously portrayed by Woodley, Alexandra is at the precise age at which she can slip into angelic or demonic modes depending upon her need. With her willowy figure and long, muted features, she appears more innocent than her record-setting usage of words like "twat" might imply.

Dabbling in a private-school bad-girl persona, she has a tumultuous recent history with her mother, so Alexandra may have even more at stake in preserving and/or tainting her mother's reputation than Matt, which makes her his perfect driving force and foil. At the same time, her potential for severe guilt-induced sorrow is great, making Matt's job a delightfully tense tightrope-walking trick.

It's the small details in The Descendants that add up to more than the sum of its parts, and it's Payne's assured hand that delivers them. It's a triumph for all, especially the audience.


Film Details

The Descendants
Rated R · 115 min. · 2011
Official Site: www.foxsearchlight.com/thedescendants
Director: Alexander Payne
Writer: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
Producer: Jim Burke, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor
Cast: George Clooney, Judy Greer, Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard, Robert Forster, Shailene Woodley, Mary Birdsong, Nick Krause and Amara

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