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The Descendants

Stripped-down superstar carries poignant, witty family dramedy

Let's get this out of the way: George Clooney is an attractive man. It's hard not to be taken by the strong jaw, the inviting smile, the salt-and-pepper hair without a strand out of place - and that's not even accounting for his charm, the seemingly effortless way he tackles worlds, both on-screen and off. Perhaps the most impressive feat of his new film, The Descendants, then, is how it strips the screen behemoth of any semblance of star power and makes him believably - dare I say - average.

The Descendants, which opened the Virginia Film Festival last Thursday night, is based on a 2008 novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings. The story follows Matt King (Clooney), a Hawaiian real-estate baron whose daredevil wife Elizabeth (Patti Hastie) is in a coma after a boating accident. When Matt is told that Elizabeth has no chance of recovery and will soon be taken off life support, he must deal with the tragedy while attempting to reconnect with his two troubled daughters. In addition to his wife's impending death, Matt finds out early in the film that she had been cheating on him and was planning to file for divorce. Underlying the family drama is Matt's indecision about selling 25,000 acres of beautiful Hawaiian land that he owns through a family trust, a deal that would make him and his six cousins instant multi-millionaires.

Such a grave plot appears to be no place for levity, but The Descendants is often laugh-out-loud funny. Expertly directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways), a master of taking dark themes and infusing them with hilarity, the film has many scenes during which it's hard to know whether to laugh, grimace or cry - an enraged Matt yelling at his comatose wife for "making his life harder" comes to mind, as does the palpable awkwardness of the scene in which Matt confronts Brian, his wife's other lover.

This mixture of comedy and heartbreak is deftly executed, appropriately nuanced and a realistic portrayal of the complexity of emotions brought on by family tragedy. The film, however, is often slow and probably should have ended a good 15 minutes before its 108-minute runtime was complete. Additionally, while the script was sharp overall - it was great to see Clooney plant a kiss on Brian's wife - the dialogue sometimes fell into forced clich

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