If George Clooney were someone other than George Clooney, his films’ perpetual good standing with Oscar voters, critics, and just about everyone else might very well seem like a contrivance, a tactical, trophy-minded effort to churn out dependably palatable, largely sophisticated, buzzworthy work. Surely Clooney has a certain awareness of the probable endpoints of his star vehicles (decidedly adult dramas and dramedies that no other leading man can match), but it almost never feels that way, as he unfailingly suggests that he’s intrinsically interested in rich content and sensitive, upscale directorial vision. In short, he’s just that classy. Barring the Coen Brothers, who help fulfill Clooney’s more playful (but no less respectable) side, Alexander Payne proves to be Clooney’s greatest behind-the-camera match to date, ably fitting the superstar’s bill and affording him acres of dramatic, endearing and emotional ground on which to run and stretch. Indefatigable, and in blissful disregard of a film writer’s desire to take notes, the duo’s partnership, The Descendants, is unassumingly superb, and it’s sure to clinch a whole lot of Oscar nominations. Indeed, it’s a Clooney.
It’s safe to say that Clooney’s Best Actor nomination for playing Hawaii landowner Matt King has been just as sight-unseen locked up as Meryl Streep’s all-but-inevitable Best Actress nod for The Iron Lady. That his performance delivers the kind of understated gravitas we’ve come to expect (as well as an effortless anguish we haven’t) is almost beside the point. What’s more remarkable is just how many nods this film is poised to pick up, a tally that makes it a definite threat to presumed front-runner, The Artist. At the very least because he’s adopted a sort of Malickian infrequency (and at the most because he just plain deserves it), Payne will be included in the Best Director top five, having even made believers of those, like A. O. Scott, who branded Sideways overrated. Also bound for recognition is Payne’s Screenplay, which he, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash co-adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel. Without question, the screenplay nomination will be the movie’s most deserved, as the story’s intuitive knowledge of grief, and the shrewd, never-quite-farcical snaking together of so many complimentary narrative elements are what truly seal the film’s impact.
Credit goes, too, to the actors surrounding the star, namely 20-year-old Shailene Woodley, a Supporting Actress frontrunner who brings such believable (and believably contemporary) sass to her role as Matt’s rebellious daughter that all her scenes feel like an actual adolescent life, projected. At times even more present than Clooney, Woodley exhibits no trace of camera awareness, and when she blubberingly spills the beans about her comatose mom’s infidelity, or insists that her sister’s rude friend is a “meth head” and a “twat,” one smiles simply because it’s all so thoroughly convincing. She steals the show, a show with no shortage of thoughtful acting from the likes of Beau Bridges and Judy Greer. (An actor who won’t get credit, but should be included in the Supporting Actor discussion, is the great Robert Forster, who’s going to break many a heart with his turn as Matt’s father-in-law, a man whose rigid ignorance takes away none of his likability.)
It will take a lot to derail The Descendants as it heads toward nominations for Best Picture and Best Editing, the latter a near-must for any serious top-race heavyweight. The Cinematography by Phedon Papamichael is also an outside possibility (albeit a very unlikely one). What sadly won’t be eligible is the film’s Music, which isn’t attributed to a composer, but music supervisor Dondi Bastone and music producer Richard Ford. There’s a chance an original song was penned specifically for the film, but evidence of it can’t be found in the available credits. The strums and incantations that ease along with the proceedings become an aural asset to the memorable, distinctive atmosphere of The Descendants, which blithely provides necessary, exotic beauty despite the running attempt to deglamorize paradise. Whatever their source, the tunes keep playing in your head, and, quite appropriately, there’s nothing else like them at the movies this year.
Surest bets: Best Picture; Best Director, Alexander Payne; Best Actor, George Clooney; Best Supporting Actress, Shailene Woodley; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Editing.
Possibilities: Best Cinematography.
Shouldn’t be Overlooked: Best Supporting Actor, Robert Forster.