The clue is in the surname – Alexander Payne.
Arguably the best chronicler in cinema today of the American male in crisis, the Oscar nominated director’s movies may have little violence in them but plenty of emotional pain.
In his biting satire ‘Election’, Nebraskan high school civics teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) pursues a vendetta against a manipulative, precocious and ruthlessly ambitious student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) by trying to sabotage her bid to become student president. He ends up badly bruised – emotionally and physically, getting a nasty bee sting on his eyelid.
In ‘About Schmidt’, Nebraskan actuary Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) struggles with his retirement – only to lose his wife when she dies of a brain clot. He sets off in a camper van to see his estranged daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) in Denver as she prepares to marry waterbed salesman Randall (Dermot Mulroney) but his efforts to dissuade her open up festering family wounds.
In ‘Sideways’, frustrated writer and wine aficionado Miles (Paul Giamatti) is mourning the break-up of his marriage as he sets off on a raucous stag weekend on the golf courses and vineyards of California’s Santa Ynez Valley with his feckless best friend Jack (Thomas Hayden Church), only to realise he will never get his wife back and his novel is not going to be published.
And now, joining this gallery of hangdog, world beaten heroes is Matt King (George Clooney) in Payne’s latest movie ‘The Descendants’.
Matt is a dull, hard working and thrifty lawyer with a collection of dodgy Hawaiian shirts who is forced to play a much greater role in his daughters’ lives when their mother is left on a life support machine following a water skiing accident.
By his own admission, Matt has always been the “back-up parent or understudy” and now he finds himself raising troubled 10 year old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) who he has not spent much time with since she was three.
Struggling to be taken seriously, he turns to his angry 17 year old daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) for help, only to learn from her that his wife was having an affair prior to the accident.
He soon becomes obsessed with confronting the estate agent (Matthew Lillard) with whom his wife was considering leaving him for.
Like the three Payne films that have preceded it, ‘The Descendants’ scores big with strong performances and a snappy screenplay.
Clooney, who was Oscar nominated this week, turns in the performance of his career as an Ordinary Joe struggling to come to terms with his wife’s coma, his new found responsibility towards his daughters, his wife’s betrayal and a deal which could land his relatives a fortune but ruin Hawaii.
In a constant state of shock and bewilderment throughout most of the movie, he asks himself at one point: “What is it about the women in my life that makes them want to destroy themselves?” and as he tries to steady the ship, his character is repeatedly tested throughout.
But while Clooney deserves all the praise he is getting, in truth the whole cast are pitch perfect.
Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller should feel cheated not to have secured Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations this week, turning in razor sharp performances.
Matthew Lillard finally shows some acting chops and casts aside the shadow of his days playing Shaggy in ‘Scooby Doo’.
Nick Krause’s turn as Alexandra’s friend Sid recalls Keanu Reeves and Chris Klein at their stoner best and there are delicious supporting performances too from Beau Bridges, Judy Greer and particularly Robert Forster as Matt’s angry father-in-law.
Adapted from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, Payne and Nat Faxon’s screenplay is beautifully written.
At one point, Matt compares families to an archipelago – separate like the islands of Hawaii “but part of a whole and always drifting”.
And as the movie amiably rambles on, you cannot help thinking what a treat it is to have such a nuanced film tackling heavy themes with great humour.
Don’t wait for the DVD. Head to your multiplex and take pleasure in the pain.
(‘The Descendants’ opened in the Movie House and other UK and Irish cinemas on January 27, 2012)