If you're of a certain age - say 40 and below - it's tough to imagine a time BC (Before Clooney). Such is his mammoth presence in Hollywoodland over the past 15 years that like Nando's, Ryan Giggs and internet porn it feels like he's always been here.
The figurehead of the Hollywood establishment (Director/Writer/Producer, Oscar's new Jack Nicholson), but never afraid to attach his name for the benefit of younger film makers (Welcome to Collinwood, The American), it's to his great kudos that he can still turn in a performance that surprises, one that - cliché alert - may just be the best of his career. But can the film hold up under the banner of Clooney's best?
On the verge of a Hawaiian land deal that will see him inherit close to a billion dollars, Matt King's world is flipped 180 degrees when a jet-ski accident results in his wife becoming locked in a coma. Flanked by two daughters he can't understand or guide, in no small part due to his parental absence, Matt has to inform the rest of his family that his wife's slumber may be permanent. In doing so, Matt King finds he has some waking up of his own to do.
The pairing of Sideways director Alexander Payne and George Clooney smacks works perfectly. Both began their big screen success in the mid to late 90's, both have just turned 50 (leading to a wonderful Hawaii 5-0 pun in one UK film magazine) and by doing so both share a love of the character-driven fare of the 70's.
And The Descendants, like Payne's Sideways and About Schmidt, is all about the characters: the petulant teenager (Shailene Woodley) angry at the world even before she's lost her mum; her dim-witted boyfriend (Nick Krause), who just might have a little something underneath, tagging along for the ride; the laid-back but greedy, and ever so slightly Dudesque (Beau Brides) cousin; the cheated wife (Judy Greer), who instantly wants to forgive even if she can't. And binding it all together, George Clooney's distant husband / father as little boy lost.
And it's this character trait which explains why Clooney is the favourite for the Oscar. This surprising side we've not seen before. Sure he pulls a classic 'Coen idiot face' at one point but the rest is a virtually unrecognisable Silver Fox. Bad hair, unkempt eyebrows and trousers hitched up half an inch below boob base. While never revealed, it's easy to imagine a little middle-aged, pot belly paunch (let's name him Max) hidden under a collection of Hawaiian shirts. This is a person and a performance an island away from the gloss of Danny Ocean.
Payne and Clooney has discussed the possibility of the latter for Sideways, but the timing (and in hindsight the casting) was wrong. In comparison to the wine buddy movie, almost eight years ago, The Descendants isn't as strong. The pacing, dialogue and mood aren't as assured and it takes until the finale to really gather the theme. [Sidenote: Paul Giamatti didn't even get an Oscar nomination for his role as Miles in Sideways. Now there's a fucking travesty.]
There will also be some who find it hard to associate with the life of the King family – all sun, sea, surf and Swizzles – and others still who may find the idea of a husband berating his comatose wife, to use a Sideways wine anology so popular in 2004, as having a nasty, bitter aftertaste. But The Descendants seems determined not to ask for unconditional love. The impression given is any love, especially familial, must be earned. When the perfectly simple closing image comes into focus you might just concur.
Clooney triumphs. From Batman and Robin to (predicted) Oscar glory it's been quite a ride so far for Gorgeous George, with no indication of veering off the road any time soon. Not to damn with faint praise but in a poor field The Descendants deserves its place amongst the 'Best of the Year' contenders. Its overall inferiority to some of Payne's former output, however, means you can't help the feeling that in other year the film as a whole might have simply been an 'also ran'.