Telluride 2011: Clooney Shines in 'The Descendants,' But Will Awards Voters Embrace a Downer?

Fox Searchlight's big Oscar hopeful gets its first audience in Telluride.

What happens when you pair the most underappreciated director working today (Alexander Payne, who has brought us at least three modern-day classics, but is still little known by the general public) with the most underappreciated actor working today (George Clooney, who, like his doppelgänger Cary Grant, rarely gets the credit he deserves because his good looks distract so many people)? The answer is The Descendants, Fox Searchlight's big Oscar hopeful this awards season, which had its world premiere this afternoon at the Telluride Film Festival.

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The film offers an often painful look at the challenges faced by one family, the Kings. The wife/mother (Patricia Hastie) suffers a traumatic injury that leaves her in a coma; the husband/father (Clooney), who had heretofore grown apart from his wife and maintained only distant relationships with his kids, is forced to step up to the plate; and, as he awaits word about her prognosis, their kids (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) make sure that that plate is plenty full. Together, they must learn to deal not only with each other, but also with betrayal, loss, and grief.

Payne's previous two -- and best overall -- movies, About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004), also dealt with matters of sadness. In the former, a man's wife dies suddenly and he is forced to face a future he never imagined; in the latter, a single man's best friend gets married and he realizes that he is all alone. The difference between those films and The Descendants, in my estimation, is that they were more consistently humorous (Sideways even competed at the Golden Globes in the categories designated for musicals and comedies rather than dramas). The Descendants reminded me much more of the tear-jerker Grace Is Gone (2007), a little-seen drama starring John Cusack as a man who learns that his wife has died suddenly and then struggles to find a way to break the news to their two young daughters.

The fact that The Descendants is also quite a downer is not a diqualifying factor in terms of awards consideration -- indeed, while the awards campaign for Grace Is Gone never really mustered any steam, nobody could argue that recent best picture Oscar winners The Departed (2006), No Country for Old Men (2007), or The Hurt Locker (2008) provided particularly uplifting moviegoing experiences. Fox Searchlight, meanwhile, would like voters to remember a slightly older film that also went the distance with the Academy and has more in common with its own hopeful: Terms of Endearment (1983), another heart-tugger in which a woman receives a fatal diagnosis and her parent, husband, and children (including one child with whom she has recently had rocky relations) try to find a way to cope.

In a year in which the Academy decided to guarantee only five (as opposed to 10) best picture nominees, and in which up to five other films can only join that crop if they also muster hundreds of first-place votes (read: passionate support), my gut feeling is that The Descendants will face an uphill climb for a best picture nod. I do, however, think that Clooney's chances for a best actor nod are much stronger; he gives one of his best performances to date (probably his most vulnerable, too, which never hurts with voters), right up there with the others that have previously earned him Academy recognition: "Syriana" (2005, for which he won best supporting actor); Michael Clayton (2007, for which he bagged his first best actor nod); and Up in the Air (2009, which earned him a second best actor nod). I defy anyone to not get choked up at his final scene in the film with his wife, to say nothing of several other moments in the film. Either way, Payne is a good bet to bag a third nod for best adapted screenplay (he won for Sideways and is beloved by fellow screenwriters), which he would share with co-screenwriter Nat Faxon (an actor who starred this summer in Bad Teacher and Zookeeper, which won't earn the duo any additional votes).