Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Catching up with 2011: The Descendants

The Descendants is a collection of entertaining – sometimes even great – moments that never comes together. It’s like I kept waiting for something to happen; that typical Alexander Payne-like swerve that throws the entire film under a new light, but it doesn’t happen. Nothing happens in this movie. And I’m not a person who needs something to happen in a movie for it to be entertaining or worth my time (one of my favorite movies is Stranger Than Paradise where not a lot happens), but there has to be some kind of mystery or intrigue or ambiguity about these characters that keeps us interested in following their journey. Everything just seems kind of telegraphed from the first moments of the lazy voiceover to the bedside emotional scenes that resound with a speciousness found in the worst offenders of the Oscar bait season. Payne seems more interested in holding the hands of the audience through every phony step of the way.

There are moments that work – moments that remind us of some of Payne’s ability to really quiet down a scene and really look at two misunderstood characters (the scene between Miles and Mya in Sideways talking about what kind of wine they like as it doubles as a description of themselves is the best example, and the height of his career as a director) –but these moments never coalesce into an interesting, emotional whole. I never felt moved by the film even though it so badly wanted to move me. Everything was so fabricated – so prescribed – that I was never given the ability to feel emotionally drained or be moved by the movie because it was telling me that those moments were coming before they happened.

Characters only exist to remind us of what a good guy Matt (George Clooney) is. For the first time Payne is without longtime writing partner Jim Thomas, and I think instead of writing a character that we aren’t sure about – someone who is simultaneously misanthropic and loveable…essentially the quintessential Payne character – we are offered up a rather bland martyr (the whole subplot of the film – whether he’s going to sell some land his family owns to a corporation or give it back to the people – is superfluous and unsurprising when it resolves itself) who does things that I think the movie wants us to see as bad (cursing and yelling at his comatose wife) but really just come off as a nice guy letting off some steam.

The movie has about 10 different ideas it introduces through voiceover, but instead of following up on any of those story threads, the movie just quickly sweeps them to the side and we’re off to the next scene as if nothing was ever the matter. It’s like The Descendants wanted to be a movie about pain without causing the audience to reflect on pain. It’s too safe and prescribed which is odd coming from someone like Payne who has always been so good at mixing the poignant with cynical.

Clooney is the film’s saving grace (although I did quite like the washed-out cinematography by Phedon Papamichael) and keeps it from falling into being a really bad experience. There is one scene in particular (pictured above) when Matt finds out some information about the land sale that throws a monkey wrench in the whole thing; it is one of the film's numerous examples of a perfectly acted and constructed scene that is frustrating because it never felt like it really coalesced with any other scenes in the movie. It's so well shot in close-up by Papamichael with the perfect juxtaposing image of a cheery Hawaiian band playing in the background (just out of focus but aurally in the foreground). It just kind of sits, though, and no matter how good a scene is, no one scene (not even one as good as this) can save such an incoherent, sloppily edited movie.

Despite the fact that Payne felt the need to vilify a comatose woman, have a father who was about as cliché and one-note as the idiot stoner (who, to nobody’s surprise I’m sure, is actually a smart, self-aware guy who shares the film’s best scene with Clooney as the two have a brief talk in the middle of the night), and a daughter who is – gasp – at a special Academy because of her past drug problems, Clooney does his damdest to elevate The Descendants to something beyond what it really is. Clooney is a star and his brilliant performance (even more pronounced by the film’s perfect use of close-up) comes off as effortless here – which is all the more frustrating that emotional payoff (which are wonderfully acted) falls so flat thanks to the uncharacteristically poor directing of Payne.

The ending shot is so appropriate. It’s perfect because it’s the perfect Payne ending: open-ended and understated. It’s also appropriate because it kind of encapsulates everything that irked me about this movie. Sure, it’s believable that Matt would be on the couch with his daughters eating ice cream (again, it’s a sweet shot to end the movie on, and I’m glad Payne chose that shot) by the end of their journey, but like everything else in the movie, it just kind of hangs there like a really good isolated moment without it really feeling like it’s a scene that is meant to elicit something more than what’s there. I never felt an emotional release during the scene; all it got out of me was a smile of admiration for being a final shot that works.

Perhaps I’m trying to make the film something it’s not, but I felt like the movie – it is, after all, an Alexander Payne movie starring George Clooney – was just a big disappointment; a film that kept introducing things without ever paying them off, and, most importantly, a film that seemed too intent on letting the audience off easy by holding their hand through every “difficult” scene of the movie. It’s just too incoherent a narrative trying to work within a problematic structure for it to be the great movie so many critics are proclaiming it to be.


  1. Clooney and everybody else included is great but it’s really Payne who shines as the writer bringing out some funny humor but not without forgetting about the real rich moments of human drama. Good review man, as usual. A good film but not as great as I was expecting.

  2. Totally agreed, Kevin. The performances are mostly good-to-great, and there are some good scenes - I also picked out the conversation between Matt and the stoner kid as a highlight - but on the whole it doesn't really come together. It just ambles along and doesn't develop the big ideas that Payne would obviously like to think he's grappling with here.

  3. Dan:

    Thanks for the kind words. I think you like it a little more than I do, but the performances are enough to warrant a view.


    I have to say that I wasn't quite sure what I thought of the movie after I saw it. I wrestled with it for a couple of days, and then I read your conversations piece with Jason and you guys seemed to be thinking along the same lines as I was. I knew I liked the movie while I was watching it -- and even after I left the theater -- but I think that was more of those really good scenes lingering more strongly than the incoherent editing/pacing of the film.

    So, when I read your guys' conversation, I was glad to see that I wasn't the only one that had problems with a film that seems to be getting countless praise for being something more than it is. The scene in the hotel is really something: small, quiet, ambiguous yet pointed in a way that the best written Alexander Payne scenes are, and smart enough to let the audience infer their own meaning behind the short conversation. It's too bad there wasn't anything there to ultimately connect to.

    Oh well. Thanks for the comment. I have your Year in Music post bookmarked for my breakfast reading. I'll be leaving a comment on that post sometime tomorrow. Looking forward to some good music recommendations.

  4. Hmm. I rather liked the film, Kevin. To me, what kept it going was the suspense of waiting to see how Matt and his daughter would uncover Brian whats-his-name and find out exactly where their family went wrong.

    I also think Payne does a brilliant job of characterizing Matt as a man of contradictions. He roars at his wife in private, but doesn't let his daughter do the same thing. And he is quick to lambast his sister-in-law and complain that "it's never a woman's fault!" when infidelity occurs, but later admits to his father-in-law that his wife deserved better. That's why I like the movie: it's like a collection of contradictions that have crumbled a whole family to ruin, while a glimmer of hope remains at the end.

  5. Good thoughts. Like you, I love the scene of Matt recovering from the news about Brian (although that reaction is better than the scenario deserves, because, as we all seem to agree, the land deal subplot never feels as important as the movie implies). You're exactly right: the band is "just out of focus but aurally in the foreground." Perfect!

    Also, in reading your review you made me question whether I responded to the last shot because it felt earned/meaningful or simply because I thought it was a beautiful way to end a movie, any movie. That said, one of the ways that it is perfectly appropriate -- and I did notice this at the time -- is that throughout the film the characters are physically disconnected. Matt is always near his daughters, but they rarely actually touch. He doesn't hold his daughters or wrap an arm around them -- not often, I mean. Thus, the beauty of the final scene is that they are starting to get cozy together, snuggling up on the couch, feeling like a family unit. Thus, to say that the scene shows the family connecting is both obvious and sneakily deep.

    (P.S. Rose Bowl!)

  6. Adam:

    See, that story arc had some great scenes, but I never felt like the journey to confront the man that was having an affair with his wife had a satisfying resolution. Also, the reason for the journey just didn't get me invested in any way.

    I like what you say about Matt being a man of contradictions. I just wish Payne would have gone a little bit further with the character -- giving him more of an edge or making him more of a loathsome character -- than he did. Of course, that would be a hard to pull off with Clooney as I think Matt King is probably the most loathsome a character he has played, and he's still a pretty nice, safe character the audience can get behind.

    I want to like it, Adam, but it just didn't do anything for me on the whole.

  7. Jason:

    I like your reading of the final scene (in addition to being physical close to his daughters, I liked that they shared the ice cream; a small, simple touch by Payne and his actors). And coupled with Adam's take about how Matt is a man of contradictions (especially in how he handles his kids), I think I can get behind the thinking that the ending may work more than I'm willing to give it credit for. I just wish there was something more that happens prior to that final shot that doesn't make it feel like a waste.

    Thanks for checking this out. I really enjoyed your Conversations piece with Ed about Payne's career. Once I see more 2011 movies, I'll add my two-cents to your year-end piece.

    Oh, and yes, Rose Bowl!!! I jumped about as high as Chip Kelly when they recovered that fumble (that somehow just sat there without rolling out of bounds) in the fourth quarter. Such an amazing game.

  8. One more thing that I meant to bring up in the convos piece but didn't ...

    Am I the only one confused about the state/situation of Matt's marriage? The initial v/o and all his interactions with his kids imply that he's the "backup parent" and doesn't have much exposure to them. Likewise, he says that when his wife had her accident they hadn't spoken in some amount of time. And yet Matt seems stunned that his wife could be having an affair. Stuff like that didn't add up to me. It's as if they were essentially separated when it comes to the kids, but his anger/hurt and the way he seems blindsided suggests they were still close. It seemed odd.

    [On the Rose Bowl: Well, the play of the game was by "Kiki" Alonso. He set me up. Before the snap, I was yelling at my TV that the TE was going to be wide open for a little 5-yard route for a first down. Wouldn't you know it, Alonso set ME up, too!]

  9. fun really a amazing and such a fun post