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Trouble in Paradise

George Clooney in "The Descendants"

The Descendants

As a rule, Hollywood is much better at making trailers than at making movies. How many lousy movies have you paid to see on the basis of a great trailer? But sometimes the opposite is true, and a movie of subtle graces is coarsened by the guys whose job it is to compress it down into a two-minute commercial that will put butts in seats.

That’s the case with The Descendants, the trailer for which initially had me shuddering at what seemed like a bad career move for George Clooney. It depicts him as a father suffering smart-mouthed insults from his teenage daughter, combined with the bathos of learning that his comatose wife had been cheating on him.

It pays to read the credits. Wondering who was responsible for this most unpromising looking film, I saw that it was directed by Alexander Payne, who after Citizen Ruth and Election was one of the most promising American filmmakers of the new century, yet hadn’t made a film since his 2004 Oscar-winner Sideways.

Adapted from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants is Payne’s first film not based on an original screenplay, and features a protagonist more openly sympathetic than, say, Paul Giamatti’s drunken novelist in Sideways or Jack Nicholson’s belligerent retiree in About Schmidt. Clooney plays Matt King, who has more going on in his life than the family traumas exploited in the trailer. Though he maintains a small legal practice and has raised a family in middle-class trappings, he is the scion of a wealthy family that married into Hawaiian royalty in the 1800s. The family owns a large parcel of unspoiled land on the island of Kauai, worth billions to developers who are eager to get their hands on it. Circumstances demand that the parcel be sold within the next seven years, and although the final decision is his, he has plenty of cousins whose financial livelihood depends on what he does.

How that plays into the family drama at the heart of the story is something you deserve to discover from the film itself. (The trailer already gives away far too much of the plot.) King may be less flamboyant than Payne’s previous heroes, but his problems are more universal, and Clooney gives a measured and touching performance.

Both The Descendants and The Ides of March, which Clooney directed, premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. At the press conference for this film, he genially resists the kind of fake drama that some journalists like to drum up with questions about box office and awards. (On the difference between George Clooney the actor and George Clooney the director: “Pretty much the same guy, exactly the same height, same hair.”)

Asked how he could play a father when he has never been a father, he gives a crash course in what acting involves. “I’ve played a father before, a few times. I don’t think you have to shoot heroin to play a heroin addict. I’m not running for president but I can play a candidate [in Ides of March]. Most of the time you don’t have to have those things in your life to understand what it was like. And I had [young actresses Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller, who play Matt’s daughters] with me and it was like having children, except you get to give them away at the end of the day, which was nice.”

Mentioning that he has wanted to work with Alexander Payne since being considered for a part in Sideways, Clooney says that the strength of the director’s screenplays is “the ability to switch on a dime between funny and sad. It’s hard to do, and it’s hard as an actor to do.”

Reflecting on his early days as an actor, he admits that “I was on some pretty crappy TV shows. And I was pretty crappy on the shows, so I can’t just call the shows crappy At first just trying to get a job…and then it’s just getting lucky. With ER, that was just luck. We were supposed to be on Friday nights, where we wouldn’t have gotten a third of the viewers we got on Thursday nights. We got 35 million a week, and immediately I went from obscure to being able to get roles. [Then] I got a good couple of lessons with some not-great films, and realized if I’m going to be held responsible, I have to care about the whole film.”

Despite remaining a top box-office draw, he says his main interst now is in directing. “But directing a film takes a long time to get done. My day job is acting, that’s how I make my living.”

As far as influences for his behind the camera work: “Before I did my first film I read Sidney Lumet’s book on directing, which was helpful. It doesn’t hurt to watch some of his films. I think Network is a masterpiece.”

A more direct influence has been Steven Soderbergh, with whom he first worked on the Elmore Leonard thriller Out of Sight. “We put a production company together—Steven wanted to reinvest the independent vibe of the ’60s back in the studio system. I liked the idea of nonlinear films, of not having tell the story from the beginning to the end, that less is more. You can trust the audience to catch on.”

Facing the inevitable question about whether he thinks his performance in The Descendants will net him an Academy Award, he’s says he’s not too concerned about it. “I’ve won one once [for Syriana], so when I die they can say ‘Oscar winner.’ It’s a great thing to have on the tombstone.

“But what I really like is when people appreciate the work. I don’t remember who won the Oscar four or five years ago: I remember films. When Network came out in 1976, it was up [for Best Picture] against Bound for Glory, All the President’s Men, Rocky, and Taxi Driver. Rocky won. Rocky’s a terrific film. And so are those other four and I remember those films really well.

“I want to do projects that last longer than an opening weekend. When they do that thing for you when you’re 75 and they bring out a wheelchair and you’ve got the colostomy bag hanging off the side, you don’t want them to say, ‘You had 20 films that opened number one.’ Who gives a shit? It’s an art form that costs millions and millions of dollars, so I understand that it has to make money and I want to make sure it does by keeping the price down, but the truth is I want to make things that people remember. If you’re able to do five or 10 of those in your life that last, then you win. Unless somebody steps on your colostomy bag.”

Watch the trailer for The Descendants

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