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The Descendants

“The Descendants” is about a man waking up in the middle of his life.  That’s ironic, because it features a woman in a coma who will never wake up.

George Clooney plays a  lawyer in Hawaii. He’s a descendant of some of the first Haolis to immigrate to the island, and, as such, has fabulous wealth.  But he’s been living his life on autopilot, simply doing the next logical thing, for years. His marriage is falling apart, and he feels no real connection to his two daughters, the older of which is in boarding school on another island.

The movie opens with Clooney’s wife in a coma, the result of a boating accident.  He is struggling to find the next logical thing to do, waffling between either staying disconnected or trying to remember how to connect.  When the doctors tell him it’s time to unplug his wife, he gathers his children to him and begins the awkward, painful process of visiting myriad friends and family and encouraging them to say goodbye to her before she’s gone. He learns some painful things about her along the way.  The film is really about the way he deals with what he learns, and the surprising ways his decisions depart from simply doing what’s expected of him and venture into areas of growth, healing, and reconciliation.

This is George Clooney’s best work yet.  He’s always had trouble escaping the slick, sexy stereotype; usually, in dramas like “Michael Clayton” and “Up in the Air,” he’s used it to his advantage.   Here, he manages to come across as a bit vacant, a little lost a little unsure what to do or how to act.  In fact, Clooney’s growth as an actor matches this character perfectly: here’s a guy who usually has it all together and projects a powerful image of success, but right now he’s in uncharted territory, trying to figure things out without much of a script.

Director Alexander Payne has crafted a series of thoughtful, awkwardly funny, beautifully composed films about men leaving their “normal” life behind to discover something deeper, truer, but also more unpredictable and, in a way, dangerous.  “The Descendants” bears a lot in common with “About Schmidt,” though it’s not as interested in going for laughs (there are laughs scattered throughout “The Descendants,”  but they come at awkward moments, and you’re almost embarrassed to laugh.)  And, like “Sideways,” this film is about how yearning for the better, deeper, truer things in life opens up incredible potential for misery, but also for happiness.

A lot of intensely painful things happen in “The Descendants,” and that’s going to keep many people away from it (my wife will never watch it.)  But in the end, it’s a hopeful movie, not because good things happen to people (whether they deserve them or not,) but because our protagonist has grown through the pain.  He’s rediscovered both the joy and pain of being alive, of being in relationship with other people, and of not knowing what to do next.  It’s a powerful film, and one of the best  of the year.

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