"Welcome to the George Clooney Film Festival," director Alexander Payne said to a packed house at Toronto's landmark Elgin Theatre, where The Descendants was about to play. Clooney, the star of Payne's comedy-drama as well as the star and director of the political satire The Ides of March, later strode onstage in all his regal good humor, as if this was not his third festival in three countries on two continents in 10 days; he had already promoted one movie or another in Venice and Telluride. (The slugabed skipped the fest in Deauville, France.) Torontonians get juiced queuing for some 300 films from such distant lands as Cambodia and Cuba, Norway and South Africa, but TIFF's purest heroine is Hollywood stardom the red-carpet parade of celestial glamour and they don't come much starrier than Mr. C.
If Clooney was pooped from prolonged exuding of his patented E.C. (effortless charm), he didn't show it during The Descendants' post-screening Q&A. Having turned 50 in May, People magazine's two-time Sexiest Man Alive declared that he was now "AARP's Sexiest Man Alive Still Alive." When the audience couldn't hear a questioner, Clooney reported that he "was saying because he's in the front row how much younger I looked." And when Amara Miller, who plays his younger daughter in the film, started rhapsodizing about working with him, he suggested that it was a paid testimonial by taking out a $20 bill to slip to her.
What The Descendants couldn't quite match were the high expectations on which it floated into town. The film, which graces the New York Film Festival next month and opens in real theaters Nov. 18, had won raves in a sneak preview at Telluride; and The Wrap's Steve Pond, who in Sept. of previous years had recklessly and correctly predicted that The Hurt Locker and The King's Speech would be the Oscar champs, sight-unseen, named The Descendants the winner of next year's Best Picture statuette. That's heavy baggage for any movie. But Clooney had met with striking success two years ago in Toronto, when he brought another semi-risky dramedy, Up in the Air. And there was reason to hope that Payne, directing his first film since the beguiling Sideways in 2004, could harness his bright, lightly satiric tone to Clooney's genial éclat.
It didn't happen, at least not for one admirer of both men's work. Watching this adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings's 2007 novel about a man facing family crises in the modern Eden of Hawaii, I wanted The Descendants' elevated sentiments to wash over me, inundate me in its lapping warmth, like the restorative waters on a Kauai beach. I'm a notorious softie, and I found things to like about the film, most particularly Clooney's performance; but I remained untouched. I must have been wearing my wet suit.
Clooney plays Matt Hill, a Hawaiian real-estate magnate whose family, on the island for centuries, must soon dispose of a huge plot of prime land it has long held. That dilemma is pushed aside when a water-skiing accident leaves Matt's wife Elizabeth (Patti Hastie) in an irreparable coma. Since her will specifies that she be taken off life support, Matt takes their two daughters the rambunctious Scottie (Miller), 10, and rebellious Alex (Shailene Woodley), 17 and Alex's goofy boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) on a journey to tell Liz's relatives and close friends that they should visit her in the few days before she dies. "Everybody who loved Elizabeth," he says, "deserves a chance to say goodbye." But what if she loved one of these close friends back? Alex tells Matt that Mom may have had an affair, just before she was stricken, with a realtor named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). On the far side of this Pacific paradise, Matt grapples with feelings of bereavement and betrayal.