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'The Descendants': George Clooney and costars dazzle critics

November 16, 2011 |  4:00 pm

The Descendants
Having fared well at festivals and been widely predicted as an Oscars best picture candidate, the new family drama "The Descendants" arrives today courtesy of director Alexander Payne ("About Schmidt," "Sideways") and star George Clooney. In the film adapted from the 2007 Kaui Hart Hemmings novel, Clooney plays an impassive father in Hawaii who is stunned by a family crisis. Critics' reviews have been overwhelmingly positive.

The Times' Betsy Sharkey says "The Descendants" is "a tragedy infused with comedy [that] calls for a balancing act from filmmaker and star alike, a tightrope they navigate with nary a wobble." Sharkey applauds Payne's "smart, sardonic sensibility" and the way the director works with cinematographer Phedon Papamichael to show Hawaii as more than a tropical paradise or a tourist trap. The cast is solid, including Shailene Woodley ("beautifully nuanced" as Clooney's teenage daughter), Nick Krause and Robert Forster, but in the end, "this is Clooney's show and he is hands-down terrific as a harried father and wary husband trying to make up for lost time."

Rolling Stone's Peter Travers gives the film a rave review, writing, "If there's something fundamentally wrong with 'The Descendants,' I can't find it. What I see ranks high on the list of the year's best films." He credits the screenwriting team of Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash with giving Clooney "the context to deliver the finest, truest and most emotionally raw performance of his career." Travers admits that the plot "sounds like TV soap slop" but, echoing Sharkey, says that Payne "walks the high wire between humor and heartbreak with unerring skill."

While Travers thinks "The Descendants" is "near perfect," New York Times film critic A.O. Scott disagrees ... sort of: "To call 'The Descendants' perfect would be a kind of insult, a betrayal of its commitment to, and celebration of, human imperfection," he writes. "Its flaws are impossible to distinguish from its pleasures." The film's pleasures, incidentally, include a nimble director; "a dazzlingly gifted, doggedly disciplined cast"; and, most of all, an "unhurried pace and loose, wandering structure."

Claudia Puig, of USA Today, deems Clooney's and Woodley's performances Oscar-worthy and calls their scenes together "the film's comic highlight." Unlike some reviewers (see below), Puig isn't put off by the film's use of voice-over, writing that "the narration can be profound." As for Payne, he "blends wit and poignancy so artfully it feels like an exquisitely choreographed dance."

Not everyone is a fan of Payne's latest film, however. Jim Hoberman, in the Village Voice, wonders "what has blunted this gifted writer-director’s edge?" Hoberman complains that the film relies too much on voice-over, that "Clooney's part is underwritten" and that it's difficult to buy the A-list star as "the beleaguered (if fabulously wealthy) everyman that the movie demands he be."

Everyman or not, Clooney can at least take solace that Hoberman's opinion is in the minority.


The return of Alexander Payne

George Clooney reveals his favorite films this year

'The Descendants': George Clooney on why he took the role

-- Oliver Gettell

Photo: Shailene Woodley, left, George Clooney, Amara Miller and Nick Krause in "The Descendants." Credit: Merie Wallace / Fox Searchlight Pictures

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