Last week, I gave an unfavorable review to "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," a film about grief; this week, "The Descendants" confirmed what a movie on that subject really ought to look like.
The Oscar-nominated film from director Alexander Payne ("Sideways") stars George Clooney as Matt King, a middle-aged Hawaiian father who must suddenly care for his two troubled daughters while his wife is in a coma.
He's also orchestrating the controversial sale of 25,000 pristine acres that's been in his family for years; and then he learns that his wife will probably die - and that she was cheating on him.
George Clooney, left, and Shailene Woodley are shown in a scene from “The Descendants.” The film was nominated Jan. 24 for an Oscar for best film. The Oscars will be presented Feb. 26 at the Kodak Theatre.
in Los Angeles, hosted by Billy Crystal and broadcast live on ABC.
"The Descendants" is a refreshingly sane and quiet little film: no gunfights, bomb blasts, chases or special effects - nothing you could even call "action"; yet it's utterly gripping from start to finish.
This is mostly because (unlike the overwrought "Loud & Close") all of its explosive situations are brilliantly real, recognizable, human, down to earth - and masterfully acted too.
Clooney is excellent in several scenes - especially when grieving for his spouse's condition or venting over her treachery.
At other times, I couldn't make the connection between Matt's patient tenderness and his former workaholism - something that allegedly led him to deny time, money and affection to his family.
Clooney is ably supported by a host of terrific lesser-knowns: Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller as the daughters, Robert Forster as Matt's bull-headed father-in-law and Nick Krause as the older daughter's boyfriend - a character that somehow combines kindness, stupidity, sincerity, surfer-dude hipness . . . honestly, I can't even describe this unforgettable personage; you just have to see it for yourself.
Yet this is part of the movie's great strength. Though Sid at first seems like every parent's nightmare for a daughter's consort, he eventually emerges as a pretty nice guy - strong, protective, honest and faithful.
Here, as elsewhere, the screenplay never ignores the foibles and sins of its characters; yet it also never abandons compassion and humanity - always able to see people as fully realized individuals.
Remarkably, this even extends to the wife's lover, whom Matt tracks down and then treats with a forbearance that is not merely commendable but downright astonishing.
It's ironic that "The Descendants" succeeds so well where "Loud & Close" fell flat, because the latter film has more big-name actors, a larger tragedy (Sept. 11) and several portentous scenes and symbols. Plus, it often tries too hard - with the result that we rarely forget it's a movie, and thus it has little power to console the sadness in its storyline.
"Descendants," on the other hand, scarcely seems to be trying at all; Payne has a light touch, and he never preaches.
Yet as the film rolled toward its low-key conclusion, I felt like my view of the world had been fine-tuned, my humanity sharpened, my sanity restored.
And isn't that what great art is supposed to do?