Sunday, November 6, 2011

SDFF Review: 'Big Night' selection "The Descendants" is a rich, imperfect cinematic treat

Film Rating: B+

One of the great things about attending a film festival is that you run into the kinds of passionate movie fans you don’t usually find at a Cineplex.  Tonight, while waiting for the ‘Big Night’ screening of “The Descendants” to start, I had an extremely pleasant chat with a woman sitting next to me about film and film criticism.  At one point, she asked me if I had a favorite genre or type of movie.  I see and write about so many films that it’s just not something I take the time to think about, and after pondering the question, I realized I had no concrete answer. 

Then the film started, and it dawned on me that we were watching an example of my favorite type of movie.  At its best, “The Descendants” is a film that deftly mixes dark, thoughtful subject matter with big, character-driven laughs.  Some call that “dramedy,” but I find the term a bit unseemly, as it undersells what this sort of film can do.  Our lives are a constant back-and-forth between dark and light moments, a balance of weight and frivolity, and movies that illustrate this dichotomy come closest to reflecting the full, brilliant complexity of human life.  In some ways, this is the ultimate realization of the cinematic medium, entertaining and enlightening in equal measure.  “The Descendants” is far from perfect, but at its best, it achieves that wonderful balance I love so much, and is so filled to burst with laughs, pathos, great characters and gorgeous imagery that I suspect audiences will simply go gaga for it when it hits screens later this month.  Review continues after the jump...

George Clooney stars as Matt King, a successful lawyer in Hawaii with a wife and two kids.  He’s also the trustee of a massive plot of ancestral land in KauaʻI, and the midst of finding a buyer for the land before the trust runs out, his wife is in a terrible boating accident.  She is thrust into a coma, and a few weeks later, Matt is informed that she will never wake up.  Her will stipulates that she not be kept alive on life support, so Matt only has a few days to tell friends and family and say his goodbyes.  Meanwhile, he struggles to handle his rambunctious ten-year-old daughter, Scottie, unsure of how he will be able to raise her on his own.  Things get far more complicated, however, when he brings his seventeen-year-old daughter, Alex, home from boarding school: after hearing the bad news, Alex tells her dad a horrible secret: that Mrs. King had been cheating on him. 

Director/co-writer Alexander Payne is clearly dealing with some heavy subject matter here.  We all have a clear idea of how we should act when a family member is on their deathbed, but Matt and Alex find themselves in a scenario where normal grief isn’t an option.  I can think of few topics darker than hating someone we should love as they die, but Payne miraculously makes this concept palpable by recognizing that even in the darkest of times, life always provides us with distractions.  For Payne, those distractions come in the form of humor, which he uses both to produce tonal variety and to draw us into this world.  It’s impressive to watch the film modulate back and forth between powerful, tear-jerking bits of drama and big, irresistible laughs.  There’s an undeniable truth to that sort of duality, adding extra layers of meaning to an inherently engaging story. 

But Payne is playing a very precise balancing game, and he ultimately can’t sustain that balance for the entire film.  The first act provides the near-perfect blend of emotions I described above, but during the second act, where Matt and his family travel to KauaʻI to find the man his wife was cheating with, the film becomes far more overtly comedic, and abandons the thoughtful, emotional side of the material for a surprisingly long stretch.  During this time, the film moves around in circles, very little is accomplished narratively or thematically, and the carefully constructed pacing falls apart.  I found myself becoming disinterested and detached, but the film does rebound during the third act, finishing on a number of strong notes. 

Still, the second act difficulties are a major drawback, and there’s another flaw that holds the film back from true greatness: it is thematically incoherent.  As the title suggests, there’s a running motif about ancestry, how we honor it and what we decide to leave for the next generation.  Matt’s choices regarding his land in KauaʻI most clearly express this theme, but Payne never makes a clear connection between this titular motif and Matt’s main struggle of dealing with his cheating, dying wife.  When the big message is delivered near the end, it comes completely out of left field, and it isn’t really touched upon again.  Payne clearly has big ideas about how the Hawaii setting and the sale of the land and the wife’s affair interconnect, but those ideas are not clearly presented, and that disconnect is too painfully obvious to ignore. 

All that being said, “The Descendants” is an undeniably rich film filled with things to love.  For me, George Clooney lies right at the top of that list.  He has long been one of my favorite actors, and Payne has arguably given him the standout role of his career.  Like many great old-fashioned Hollywood film-stars, such as James Stewart or Humphrey Bogart, Clooney has a very specific screen persona, constantly crafting characters that are likable, complex, relatable, and emotionally reserved, if not closed off altogether.  It’s that last bit that Payne plays with here, crafting a scenario so morally confusing that Clooney is stripped of his confidence and stability. It’s a side of Clooney we’ve never seen before; this kind of emotional richness has been hinted at in films like “Michael Clayton” and “Up in the Air,” but here, Clooney is allowed to fully open up, to express a warmth and humanity his characters usually bury deep down, and he is utterly fantastic in every single scene.  I don’t know if it’s my absolute favorite Clooney performance – I really, really love “Up in the Air” – but when he wins his long-overdue Best Actor Oscar for this part, I’ll be cheering enthusiastically.

But we know Clooney is brilliant; the big surprises in the ensemble come from the younger cast members.  Shailene Woodley is a real find as Alex; her maturity and screen presence is remarkable, and she has great father-daughter chemistry with Clooney.  The same can be said of young Amara Miller as Scottie, Matt’s 10-year-old daughter; she too has presence, and more importantly, comes across as a real little girl, not a manufactured screen character.  Together, this family functions as a believable, endearing unit, and they are so fun to watch together that the film remains entertaining even during the problematic second act.

Visually, “The Descendants” is an absolute triumph, and that’s not just because it’s set in Hawaii.  That definitely gives the filmmakers an advantage, but capturing the beauty of the islands isn’t as simple as merely pointing a camera.  Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael exhibit total control of the wide, anamorphic frame, filling every inch of every shot with lush, gorgeous detail.  Even in indoor scenes, the composition is terrific, and I would be happy to watch this film on mute, just to appreciate the artistry on display in each magnificent frame.  I have no qualms in saying that “The Descendants” features the best cinematography I’ve seen this year; not as groundbreaking, perhaps, as some of the material in “Melancholia,” but in terms of sheer visual power and consistency, the film can’t be beat.

There’s so much more to appreciate; the immersive realization of Hawaiian culture, the authentic musical selections, the depth of the cast, filled with immense talent right on down to the smallest roles, etc.  “The Descendants” is an undeniably rich film, albeit one where the whole is less than the sum of its parts.  The film is too narratively and thematically problematic at times to be truly great, but it is very good, and at its best, it captures the true-to-life balance between pathos, laughs, and hardship that we can all relate to, and a part of me loves the film unreservedly for those wonderful moments.

“The Descendants” will arrive in Denver at the Landmark Mayan on November 18th

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1 comment:

  1. I love the very same qualities in "About Schmidt" (a hugely underrated Payne film) that you find so appealing in "The Descendants" - can't wait to see it!