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NYFF: " The Descendants"

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.

"You really don't get it, do you Dad?"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.

Clooney & Screen Daughters

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. 

...and many more!

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Reader Comments (12)

Too bad you guys weren't that enthused with 'Descendants'. I too am a big fan of Payne's work, but I loved it. It was my favourite film at TIFF: I thought it was such a funny film, and one that was so well balanced emotionally.

I agree that it's not quite in the same league as Sideways (or About Schmidt) although few films will ever be. Oh, well...

Good reviews/coverage of the fest though!

October 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPat

I agree, it's rock solid but not nearly as great as "Sideways". I liked Woodley, but she is not quite the revelation that I thought she'd be. Amara Miller & Nick Krause both stole a lot of her thunder.

October 16, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjoy

I disagree totally with this review. But then I wasn't as crazy about Sideways as every critic in America, and I much preferred Payne's edgier Citizen Ruth and Election. I loved The Descendants, which took a situation that could have been maudlin and predictable and took it in a whole other direction. I've never seen Clooney better and I won't be surprised if he wins an Oscar for this.

October 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGabriel Oak

I can't wait to see this movie. I am from Hawaii; the author of the book was a student of mine, and Alexander Payne bought me a drink when he was in Honolulu filming. He was a great guy and recommended a couple of obscure books that he'd just read and that I had never heard of. So yeah, those reasons have nothing to do with the film, but they have me predisposed to enjoy it. I moved away from the Islands after 20 years, so this movie will push a lot of emotional buttons for me. So yeah, can't wait to see it.

October 16, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertimothy

Tim - I hope you like it. I hope my discussion of the film made it clear that I consider it very much worth seeing. I'd probably rate it a B, but its a B that occasionally shoots up to an A- here and there.

Gabriel - Election is my favorite of his films. It was that edge that I was missing from The Descendants, although I agree Payne did a great job managing the tone, keeping it from becoming a dirge. It is on the question of predictability where we disagree. I was never surprised by where the film took me.

October 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C

I think that The Descendants is Alexander Payne's The Apartment. I think its winning Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Actor. The whole shebang.

October 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoan Holloway

Joan - Wow. Strong words. I think it is definitely possible. It certainly has a large bloc of support, I wish I could agree with you about the Apartment comparison. I will be sure to find time for a second viewing of this one. About Schmidt improved for me substantially after my first viewing.

October 17, 2011 | Registered CommenterMichael C.

Billy Wilder didn't follow up The Apartment with Irma La Douce but with the wonderful mayhem of One Two Three. Brilliant trifecta of very different kinds of comedy. Just sayin'...

October 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDieter

Yes, I haven't seen this Clooney movie, but I had to comment. Irma la Douce is no turkey. It is a wonderful, delightful movie. I kind of love it.

October 17, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

wow... i remain baffled that so many people are so in love with this one. I thought it ws so awkward. I agree with most of this review only I am less enthused by it than MIchael. Particularly in the beginning i thought the film was a mess. and the narration is egregiously bland/unecessary.

plus as movies go, i jsut didn't find it visually interesting beyond how pretty Hawaii is.

October 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

I found it good. But so-so as well. I actually felt badly after seeing it at TIFF that I wasn't WOW LOVE IT! I will see it again at Christmas. I love Clooney as much as the rest of us but I don't think he'll even make my Top 5 with so many strong lead actor entries this year. He's hovering around 4 or 5 right now. But there's still a few more performances to see.

October 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph

Timothy, the Hawaii element of the film is lovely. Much as I liked the film, I do wonder about the ending. I need to see the film again. I have to say my viewing of the film was influenced by the presence of Clooney sitting a few feet away from me at the wonderful Elgin Theater in Toronto.

October 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGabriel Oak
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