Director Alexander Payne's (Election Sideways) new film opens over sprawling landscape shots of Hawaii's scenic suburbia accompanied by George Clooney's character Matt King summing up his current predicament: "Paradise can go fuck itself." The reaction unfortunately is reasonable.
We pick up with King an ancestor of Hawaiian royalty in the middle of deliberations over a plot of land handed down through his family over generations. With every uncle aunt and cosign whispering opinions into his ear King is suddenly presented with an even greater problem: taking care of his two daughters. A boating accident leaves his wife in a coma forcing Matt to take a true parenting role with his young socially-troubled daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) and his rebellious teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) who was previously shipped off to boarding school. Matt awkwardly hunts for the emotional glue necessary for the mismatched bunch to become "a family " but matters are made even more complicated when Alex reveals that her mother was cheating on him before the accident. Murphy's Law is in full effect.
With The Descendants Payne continues to explore and discover the inherent humor in life's melancholic situations unfolding Matt's quest for understanding like a road movie across Hawaii's many islands. Simultaneously preparing for the end of his wife's death and searching for the identity of her lover Matt crosses paths with a number of perfectly cast side characters who act as mirrors to his best and worst qualities: his father-in-law Scott (Robert Foster) who belittles Matt for never taking care of his daughter; Hugh (Beau Bridges) an opportunistic cousin who pressures Matt to sell the land; Alexandra's dunce of a boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) who always has the wrong thing to say; and Julie (Judy Greer) the wife of the adulterer in question. Colorful yet real Matt experiences a definitive moment with each of them yet the picture never feels sporadic or episodic.
Clooney and Woodley help gel these sequences together as they observe experience and butt heads as equals. Clooney's own magnetism stands in the way of making Matt a fully dimensional character but he shines when playing off his quick-witted daughter. His reactions are heartbreaking—but it's the moments when he has to put himself out there that never quite ring true. But the script by Nat Faxon Jim Rash and Payne gives Clooney plenty of opportunities to work his magic visualizing his struggle as opposed to vomiting it out like so many of today's talky dramas.
The Descendants is a tender cinematic experience an introspective and heartwarming film unafraid to convey its story with pleasing simplicity. Clooney stands out with a solid performance but like many of Payne's films it's the eclectic ensemble and muted backdrop that give the movie its real texture. The paradise of Descendants isn't all its cracked up to be but for movie-goers it's bliss.
It's a week of superstars returning to the Top Ten! Dennis Franz is back, after a lengthy custody battle with Sela Ward over the 10 p.m. Tuesday timeslot. Many people apparently still love Raymond, even though he was starting to think, maybe ... you know, there might be someone else. And it's good to know that a classic clash of wills between Charlton "let my people go" Heston and Yul "let's see them make bricks without straw" Brynner can still pack 'em in front of the TV, year after year.
Here now, for your edification and amusement are the Top Ten shows of the past week in TV, according to the fine people at Nielsen Media Research (each rating point represents a little more than a million viewers).
1. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" (Tuesday, ABC - 18.7) ABC executives, concerned about losing some of their regular Sunday audience, actually had a plan to digitally insert Regis into the "The Ten Commandments." When Ramses says to Moses, "I will not let your people go," Regis was supposed to jump out from behind the Pharaoh's throne and forcefully demand, "Is that your final answer?" Thankfully, Regis thought this was in poor taste and refused.
2. "ER" (Thursday, NBC - 18.2) Last week they knocked off No. 1. But this week's plot, "Dr. Greene must provide 'intimate' care for his crotchety and humiliated father," just wasn't quite sexy enough to pull off another upset.
3. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" (Thursday, ABC - 17.7) This is where the "Daddio" audience is rushing off to just as "Frasier" is coming on.
4. "Friends" (Thursday, NBC - 12.8) And this is where the "Daddio" audience actually comes from.
5. "Dharma & Greg" (Tuesday, ABC - 12.1) Again, you have no problem sticking around after Regis for this show, but when "Sports Night" was on at 9:30, you always had to floss your teeth! And now look what happened! "Talk to Me" finished in the Top 20 in their old spot! You know, we're starting to think that maybe you don't even like "Sports Night."
6. "60 Minutes" (Sunday, CBS - 11.0) In an exclusive interview, Dan Rather was finally able to ask Juan Miguel Gonzales (father of famous Miami Dolphins fan and budding non-Communist Elian) the two questions that have been burning a hole in the minds of Americans everywhere. Namely, "how dare you be from Cuba?" and "what possible justification can you offer to Americans everywhere for wanting to raise your own son?"
7. "Daddio" (Thursday, NBC - 10.9) How is it that guys such as Daddio, or Bob Newhart for that matter, always have really hot wives? Is it because Daddio is going to play Curly in the Three Stooges movie next week? Is that what brings in the babes?
8. "The Ten Commandments" (Sunday, ABC - 10.8) And the Lord said unto Philbin, "Let my time slot go!" And he did, and it was good.
9. "NYPD Blue" (Tuesday, ABC - 10.7)
10. "Everybody Love's Raymond" (Monday, CBS - 10.0) Well, of course they do, honey. And you just keep on saying that, over and over again until the bad voices stop. And in other ratings news ...
ABC's "Once and Again" did an 8.8 on Monday night, continuing its dominance over all other shows with "... and Again" in their titles. "Now and Again" on CBS finished second with a 5.5 and MSNBC's "Time and Again" was a distant third.