Michael C from Serious Film here with the closing night film of the New York Film Festival.
It is at times like this when I feel a pang of envy for those people out there who are oblivious to the world of obsessive cinephiles like myself.
These are the people who saw and loved Sideways in 2004 and went merrily on with their lives, unaware that there were folks like me waiting through an excruciating seven-year hiatus for Alexander Payne to settle on his next project. Film lovers like myself saw Sideways as the culmination of an incredible eight-year run of movies that positioned him to be this generation's answer to Billy Wilder, and who was basically alone out there making comedies for adults with intelligence, heart and wit in such strong measure.
So it is not exactly fair that The Descendants has to live up to that incredible weight of expectations. Taken on its own it is a fine piece of work. It is flawlessly acted, makes great use of location, and gathers a genuine emotional impact as it reaches its final scenes. But taken as a step in Payne's career this can't help but feel like a minor work. A solid double after a streak of home runs.
The film hits a false note right at the beginning frontloading the story with a cumbersome voiceover narration it doesn't need. We are told Clooney plays Matt King, lifelong Hawaiian, husband, father of two daughters and trustee of twenty-five inherited acres of undeveloped Hawaiian paradise worth untold millions. As the film opens Matt is nearing a deal to finally cash in on all that land when a boating accident lands his wife in a coma from which she is unlikely to wake. Clooney is forced to try to make order of his messy personal life as he spreads the sad news to family and friends.
One thing that made Payne's previous work so memorable is that he creates lead characters so well drawn they have since come to completely define their type. Is it possible to think of ruthless ambition without thinking of Tracy Flick frantically jutting her hand in the air? Is there a more vivid portrait of flailing middle-aged desperation than Jack chasing Miles down the side of a hill, wine bottle in hand? Clooney's Matt King never pops in this way. He mostly seems like a pretty nice guy. Not husband or father of the year, but doing his best. He becomes focused on the revelation of his wife's infidelities, but since we never get a strong sense on their marriage pre-coma this doesn't have a lot of dramatic juice to it. Similarly, after a rocky start with his daughters he settles into being a decent parent. Clooney gives a characteristically strong performance, wringing as much as he can from the part, but the character simply doesn't go to any particularly surprising places. It's a very good performance, but it is exactly the very good performance we are expecting.
Sky-high expectations aside there is a lot to recommend about The Descendants, the great cast first and foremost. Shailene Woodley is every bit Clooney's equal in the role of the eldest, rebellious King daughter. I would not be surprised to hear her name among the year's supporting actresses nominees. And in brief supporting turns Robert Forster and Judy Greer nail their scenes in a big way, creating the film's strongest moments. Memo to Hollywood casting agents who didn't get it the first time Tarantino sent it in 1998: Put Robert Forster in everything.
Even the great Billy Wilder was capable of following up the back-to-back masterpieces of Some Like it Hot and The Apartment with a turkey like Irma la Douce. The Descendants is not a mistep anywhere near that egregious. It is a good, occasionally very good, drama with some well-earned laughs and emotional payoffs that stick well enough that you forgive the film's shortcomings. Yet, nothing in the film excited me as much as the knowledge that Payne is already working on his next directorial effort, due in 2012.
Previously on NYFF
The Artist finds another mega-fan in Nathaniel.
The Skin I Live In burrows under Michael's.
Goodbye First Love whispers its pain to Kurt.
Party of Shame Nathaniel drops Fassbender's magic name.
Hugo is under construction but Nathaniel likes the blueprint.
My Week With Marilyn entertains Nathaniel only when its On Set With Marilyn.