Toronto: Alexander Payne's The Descendants

Toronto delivers an early viewing of a certain Oscar contender

George Clooney, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller in The Descendants

George Clooney, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller in The Descendants

Maybe it's churlish to criticize a movie so gentle and big-hearted, but The Descendants delivers an oddly neutered version of its director's typically scabrous perspective. (Complex the film is not, unless you mean varying shades of soft Hawaiian pastels.) Remember the real Alexander Payne? Tracy Flick's Nixonian rage in Election or the middle-age frustrations of 2004's Sideways (the director's last film)? Then you'll understand how an undercurrent of bitterness helps flavor Payne's comedic stew.

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George Clooney, on the other hand, as The Descendants' sandal-wearing Matt, a Honolulu lawyer and father, is way too reasonable to serve as a dramatic crux. (Clooney's traveling hatchet man in Up in the Air is both a sharper performance and, paradoxically, better material for Payne.) Into Matt's life fall a number of showers, all of them weathered with too adaptable a pose: His wife dies in an offscreen water-skiing accident and their two estranged children must reconnect as a family. (Moreoever, the wife was cheating on him.)

There's never any doubt that this bonding will happen, or that hugs are in order. One's capability for precisely guessing plot developments becomes shocking: Of course Matt will let his angry father-in-law, mourning a "faithful wife," stand uncorrected. Of course the doofusy boyfriend will turn out to be more substantial than he appears. The movie does has a loveliness to it, via the locations and its regionally motivated ukelele music. But this is all too safe from a director I turn to for difficult insights.

The Oscar machine is already pumping for Clooney's turn. That's too bad because I've seen three worthier performances in just the last few days: Michael Fassbender's closed-off NYC predator in Shame, Brad Pitt's Redford-esque general manager in Moneyball and Woody Harrelson's bad cop in Oren Moverman's L.A.-set Rampart, a wonderfully open-ended corruption movie with some seriously adult situations and snappy dialogue. Too smart to get fully caught (this is an officer who can outtalk the D.A.) and too dumb to fix his own unhinged behavior, Harrelson gets at core truths, not a cute catharsis.

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