Does George Clooney ever sleep? On top of “Ides Of March”, here’s one of the most captivating movies of 2011. Director Alexander Payne (“Election”, “About Schmidt”, “Sideways”) is a master storyteller, and “The Descendants” reaffirms his status as one of Hollywood’s best. In adapting the 2009 novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, Payne has given Clooney the chance to deliver one of the finest performances of his career. He plays a successful lawyer in Hawaii who, as we learn early on, has become so consumed by work that he has neglected his wife and two daughters. But when his wife is injured in a water-skiing accident that puts her in a coma, he is forced to become a full-time father to his alienated teenage daughter (Shailene Woodley) and her younger sister. In the midst of this, he learns that his wife was having an affair with a married man, played by Matthew Lillard. On the surface, “The Descendants” sounds like a soap opera. No worries, this is where Payne comes in. Here’s a director who sees the absurdity of everyday existence, and knows how to put it into use. I love that guy. His movies couldn’t be more serious, and yet most of them have a great deal of humor as well (see “Sideways”). That’s one of the qualities that distinguishes Payne and makes “The Descendants” so damn good. The scene in which Clooney learns that his wife doesn’t have much time to live is devastating. Funny and moving are the words for most of the performances in the film, from Robert Forster, as Matt’s hardass father-in-law, to Matthew Lillard, who’s a long way from “Scream” and “Scooby Doo” (Thank God for that).
If you have a hunger for great acting, “The Descendants” is for you. If you have a hunger for something completely different, “The Descendants” is definitely for you. Yes it has been seven years since Payne’s last movie, but unlike Michael Bay, Payne searches every time for the perfect book to adapt. And when he does find that special book, he turns it into a masterfully realized film. Payne knows how to balance between funny and heartbreaking, and that’s exactly what he sets out to do here. As for Clooney, he lights up “The Descendants” and makes it funny, touching and vital. His performance gets to you. It’s one from the heart.