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Getting Older, Moving On

“The Descendants” is a gentle, tough, acutely observed, nuanced picture of mixed emotions that walks the thin line between comedy and tragedy with easy confidence. In his first film since 2004’s “Sideways,” director Alexander Payne has transformed a story of betrayal, family dysfunction, death and potential rape of the land into an entertaining and deeply moving film. All of this is played against a mostly lush, wet Hawaii, stripped of luaus and hula dances (there is one, but it’s on the dashboard of a jeep), where people live ordinary lives that interconnect in the ways lives do. Even the dialogue, from a screenplay adapted by Payne from Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel, intersects: Conversations start out of nowhere, meander and then end suddenly, as they do in life. At the center of the story is Matt King (George Clooney, in a career-changing role), a descendant of Hawaiian royalty who, as sole trustee, is navigating the sale of thousands of acres of ocean-front land on Kauai for the benefit of himself and his many cousins. But his wife, Elizabeth, lies comatose after a boating accident, and Matt, the distant and clueless husband and father, must suddenly be an only parent for 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley). Scottie mostly gives Matt the bird, while Alex is retrieved from boarding school in a cloud of rage punctuated by streams of expletives. Matt makes very funny, awkward attempts to connect with his daughters in what may become a new, permanent family group. Along the way Alex, exhausted by her father’s inability to “get it,” reveals a secret that launches Matt on the hilarious, stork-legged run, in flip-flops, no less, that highlights the film’s trailer and billboards.The run is funny; the secret is not. It is in the genius for casting, and especially casting against type, that the movie gets its substance and wallop; and it is in his willingness to let the camera rest on his characters’ faces that he achieves emotional depth. Clooney is acting outside his usual comfort zone: When did you last see him as a married man and father? He is slightly schlubby, and you notice the lines and the every-so-slight sagging under the chin. He’s still handsome, now more Marlboro Man than Lothario, and charming; but the charm is muted. This character is quizzical at this new hand he’s been dealt; he tries to escape into his normal routine, but gives up; he must face the present and the future as the complete adult he has never been. First-timer Woodley is terrific, all spoiled teenager filled with angst and confusion. Miller will make you tear along with her when she faces her mother’s final hours. Sid Krause plays Alex’s stoner boyfriend with mindless sweetness and surprisingly poignant moments of self-revelation. Robert Forster, as Matt’s father-in-law, translates his anger and anguish into surprising physical action: “I’m going to hit you,” he says, and does. Judy Greer delivers a stunning performance as a wife whose life becomes intertwined with the Kings through no fault of hers, but who embodies the film’s most human emotions — love, betrayal, hate, anger, forgiveness — with bravura control. But the movie, which has just been named best picture of the year by the Los Angeles Film Critics, ultimately, is Clooney’s. When he finally decides what to do with the land on Kauai and settles into a new, peaceful relationship with his daughters, you have a profound sense of closure: He’s honored his ancestors and moved on. “The Descendants” is playing at the Triplex in Great Barrington and elsewhere. The film is rated R for language.

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