Clooney makes ‘The Descendants’ tick

Published 10:50 am Saturday, February 18, 2012

For someone who has never been a parent, George Clooney does a masterful job as the central character in the Oscar-nominated film for Best Picture, The Descendants. As beleaguered parent Matt King, Clooney has been nominated in the “Best Actor” category for the upcoming Academy Awards.

It is a role in which Clooney attempts to transform from a workaholic, awkward father into a responsible, caring parent. He is desperate to overcome an absentee parenting model and to find a substantive connection with his two daughters. His ability to laugh at himself amid the familial dysfunction leads audiences to believe that his damage control just might be successful.

The catalyst for his efforts is the tragic, life-support condition of his comatose spouse. Compounding his difficulties is the sobering realization that his absentee lifestyle has facilitated and pushed his wife to find a lover. When his spouse’s dalliance is exposed, Clooney is able to convey a memorable combination of expressions that range from denial and anger to a subtle touch of belief and acceptance.

The setting of the film is Hawaii. Given the film’s dramatic backdrop, it is not surprising that the audience will experience a roller-coaster ride of angst, heartache but, ultimately, hope. Offsetting comic relief to this emotional ride are the actors who play Matt King’s 10-year-old daughter, an unruly hellion, and the stoner boyfriend of King’s 17-year-old daughter, who is played by Shailene Woodley.

Woodley as Alexandra King is first rate. She allows us to identify with her painful circumstance whenever she punishes her father for his frequent, parental absenteeism. Her winsome transformation to her dad’s strongest supporter is completed during a humorous confrontation between a revenge-seeking Clooney and the superficial lover of his wife. It is this pivotal encounter that allows Clooney to finally gain some semblance of closure over his wife’s tragic condition. The moment serves as a vital catalyst for the entire family from dysfunctional state toward a belated rediscovery of unstated love.

Other well-known actors appear throughout the full two-hour film. Robert Forster as the cantankerous, grieving father taps our emotional well. In a largely cameo role, he is superb while lashing out at Clooney and blaming him in part for his daughter’s comatose state. He skillfully softens his voice when his controlled rage is redirected toward his granddaughter. His anger is so palpable that he leaves the audience questioning if time will prove to be a healing ally. Beau Bridges also has a brief but memorable role as a relative of mixed Hawaiian bloodlines. His part is that of a free-loading relative who, along with other relatives, are exceedingly anxious to benefit from the pending sale of pristine family property to a developer.

The final decision to sell and to make all of “the Descendants” wealthy individuals ultimately must rest with Clooney, head of the family trust. So too does so much of the success of the film.

CHUCK LILLEY of Franklin is a retired corporate manager. His email address is