Arriving with serious Oscar buzz, “The Descendants” is the oddest kind of road movie: one in which the roads don’t exist at all.
An attorney, Matt’s laid-back life is hit with a metaphorical tsunami — not once, but twice — when his wife (Patricia Hastie) is thrown from a boat and into a vegetative state. The news from doctors that she’s not expected to recover is worsened by the accidental revelation that she was invested deeply in an affair with a realtor by the name of Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard, who’d better be thanking his stars the title page of his script doesn’t bear the words “Scooby” or “Doo”).
Egged on by his estranged, troubled daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, TV’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager”), Matt embarks on a search for this Mr. Speer — for curiosity, closure and/or confrontation, we’re not sure which.
What the audience can be sure of is this is the best Clooney has ever been. The man is always magnetic, but in terms of strict emotions, of being human, he’s right on target, with much of Matt’s regret and anguish told through Clooney’s hangdog eyes rather than lines from the page — until the end, when Matt has to tell his wife the words he’s kept bottled for years. It feels real, honest — just the sort of portrayal rewarded with trophies cast in any number of precious metals come year’s end.
So is the film, the first for director/ co-writer Alexander Payne since winning an Academy Award for 2004’s “Sideways.” Like that project, this one is full of fine performances, from Robert Forster (“Jackie Brown”) as Matt’s grumpy father-in-law to Judy Greer (“Love and Other Drugs”) as Speer’s down-to-earth wife. Behind Clooney, Greer gets the movie’s biggest scene; Forster, its biggest laugh.
Opening today at AMC Quail Springs Mall 24, “The Descendants” is not perfect. The two daughters — newcomer Amara Miller being the other — lean a tad toward the sitcom side, and one of Payne’s scene transitions looks like someone clicked “wipe” on the iMovie menu.
Yet such infractions are minor; like an anti-“Terms of Endearment,” Payne’s makes a mature work for mature adults without the sugary overdose of sentimentality.