4.5 out of 5 stars

Rated R

Starring: George Clooney

When you ask anyone where they would like to spend their dream vacation, Hawaii is always a common answer. Movies make Hawaii look like such a glamorous and peaceful safe-haven that it's no wonder why we all fanaticize of escaping there. Some people might even wish to remain there forever when they're on a vacation high. After watching "The Descendants" though, some might start to appropriately reorganize Hawaii as a place that's fun to visit, but it's not a trouble-free paradise for those that live their.

Hawaii acts as the setting and a crucial supporting character in Alexander Payne's exceptional new film, which displays how even people in a supposed paradise must cope with loss and learn to start fresh. In the movie's opening scene, a Hawaiian local named Matt King addresses the audience, asking, "Do they think we're immune to life? How can they possibly think our families are less screwed up? Our heartaches, less painful?" We eventually find Matt in the hospital room of his comatose wife, who was in a fatal boating accident. The doctors tell Matt that his wife's condition will never improve. Her will states that she does not want to be kept on life support and Matt has little choice but to respect her wishes.

George Clooney plays Matt, who is overwhelmed by the fact that he must stand up as a single parent to his daughters. His youngest is Scottie, a curiously delightful young girl played by Amara Miller. His teen-aged daughter is Alexandra, a fowl-mouthed rebel played by Shailene Woodley. Matt pulls Alexandra out of her private school to help inform friends and family of the tragedy. The father and daughters journey across the Hawaiian Islands to share the sad news. Along the way, Matt comes to a decision regarding the future of his family's land and learns that his sainted wife wasn't all that loyal during their marriage.

Just a few weeks ago I discussed how far Clooney has come as a performer in my review of "The Ides of March." Now Clooney gives what may very well be the most inspired performance of his career as Matt King. Clooney might seem like an unusual choice to play Matt, who comes off as a conflicted everyman where Clooney is better known for playing such seemingly perfect individuals. Yet, Clooney is faultless in the role, demonstrating a wide range of emotions throughout the course of the movie.

There's a scene in which Matt's daughter informs him that his wife had an affair and he runs out of the house in sandals. The blank expression on Clooney's face as he sprints through his neighborhood perfectly sums up the numerous questions running through Matt's head regarding his marriage.

It offers a moment that's both subtly goofy and intense as you wonder what this man is going to do next. Matt later confronts is unconscious wife about her affair. In Clooney's eyes we see regret for being such an absent spouse, the desire to turn back the clock, anger towards his wife for her disloyalties and, ultimately, the need to forgive his wife before her time has passed. This is a powerful piece of acting.

As great as Clooney is, I think the real discovery is Woodley as Alexandra. Woodley is best known for playing a knocked up 12-year-old on "The Secret Life of the American Teenager," a show that downgrades teenagers to whiny, lame drama queens with about as much personality as toast. In "The Descendants," Woodley demonstrates just how talented of an actress she is with a fully realized, three-dimensional young woman. This is an Oscar-worthy adolescent performance as Woodley tries to keep her family together while feeling animosity towards her father and, especially, her mother. Alexandra is a character many can identify with, particularly those who have teen-aged daughters of their own.

Every actor is permitted a moment to shine in "The Descendants." Nick Krause is hilarious as Alexandra's sort of boyfriend who typically says the wrong thing at the wrong time. Robert Forster is suitable to play Matt's father-in-law, who blames Matt for everything that has happened as a method to cope with his own grief. Then you have Judy Greer, an actress who is usually limited to playing the quirky best friend. Here she delivers some of her finest work as the wife of the man who was sleeping with Matt's wife. Her character ark works up to a powerful scene in a hospital room in one of the most memorable cinematic moments of the year.

Payne, who also wrote the screenplay with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, has developed a truly special comedy. You might find it odd that I would describe "The Descendants" as a comedy, given its uneasy subject matter. But there hasn't been a movie that's been so equally funny and tear jerking since "50/50," a comedy released just a couple months ago about a man coping with cancer.

In such a difficult time with no simple answers, these are two movies that both feel factual to the hardships of life and still manage to put audiences in high spirits. I think that's just what our country needs right now.

• Nick Spake is a student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at nspake@asu.edu.


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