Print options

September 20, 2011

Man Struggles with Comatose Wife, Feisty Teen in 'The Descendants'

by Alan Silverman

Movie stars and fans descend on Toronto every September for the Canadian city's annual international film festival. One of this year's most acclaimed films, The Descendants, stars George Clooney.



"I'm the back-up parent - the understudy - and with Elizabeth, my wife, in the hospital, my daughters are testing me," notes Matt King, a Honolulu attorney in a family with roots in Hawaii dating back to the mid-1800s. The view out his window is what most mainlanders consider an island paradise, but Matt is in personal hell: his wife is in a terminal coma and their teenaged daughter Alex is being …well, a teenager.

MATT: "I have to go around and tell people what's happening …family and a few close friends."
ALEX: "I don't want to talk about mom with anyone."
MATT: "Look, whatever you two fought about, you have to drop it. Grow up."
ALEX: "You really don't have a clue, do you? Dad, mom was cheating on you."


CAPTION
George Clooney as Matt King and Shailene Woodley as Alexandra Photo: Merie Wallace

Just when he thought things couldn't get worse, Matt learns of his dying wife's infidelity and becomes determined to find "the other man."

"Who is he? I'd like to know who the guy is that my wife was …seeing," Matt tells his daughter.

George Clooney came to the 36th annual Toronto International Film Festival with two films. He directed and co-wrote the scathing political drama "The Ides of March." But Clooney says, for The Descendants, he was happy to turn those tasks over to Alexander Payne.

"It's such a well-written part and such a good director that it made it easy as an actor," Clooney says. "I didn't have to think as a director at all. You just put yourself in his hands.

"When you see the film, the thing that is Alexander's specialty is his ability to switch on a dime from funny to really sad," he adds. "It's really hard to do well. And it's hard as an actor to judge that. Only he knows where he wants it to be so you really just have to go 'you tell me when I've gone too far or not far enough.'"

CAPTION
Director Alexander Payne on set of "The Descendants" Photo: Merie Wallace

After his first films were set in his native Omaha in the American Midwest, Alexander Payne took audiences to California wine country in the Oscar-winning hit Sideways. Speaking to reporters at the Toronto festival, Payne explained why he felt The Descendants, adapted from a novel by Hawaiian author Kauai Hart Hemmings, had to be filmed on that island state.

"Shooting in Hawaii is one of the reasons I wanted to make this film …and not just for the obvious reasons - the sun and surf and all of that," explains Payne. "My previous visits to Hawaii had taught me that there's a very interesting and complex social fabric there that I wanted to get to know a little bit more …as much as I could …and try to represent it faithfully on screen."

CAPTION
L to R: George Clooney as Matt King, Shailene Woodley as Alexandra and Amara Miller as Scottie star in "The Descendants"

Payne avoids the usual tourist destinations in Hawaii and focuses instead on things that people who live there would recognize including …and especially, he says …the music.

"It was my idea early on that, given how much Hawaiian music there is, it would be inelegant of me not to have a soundtrack comprised entirely of Hawaiian music," notes the director. "I thought that would be a good challenge to make that work …to take largely pre-existing Hawaiian music."

The Descendants arrives at theaters in November, but it comes out of Toronto with a strong "buzz" as a major contender in the upcoming awards season.