Monday, January 30, 2012

Five Talking Points About "The Descendants"

I had honestly hoped it wouldn't come to this.  For this lowly Oscar-obsessive, even I recognized that wishing for a total shut out of The Descendants was a bridge too far.  But, I did hope for something akin to Frost/Nixon or Finding Neverland.  That is, an inevitable Best Picture nominee whose appeal remains alien to me, but becomes easy to ignore past the nomination announcement due to its unlikelihood of actually winning any major awards.  (Truthfully, that Best Original Score trophy for Finding Neverland does still loom as a minor "what the fuck" moment in Oscar history, but I suppose that's a conversation for 2004).

Alas, not only is Alexander Payne's latest effort a nominee for Best Picture, but it has a decent enough chance of picking up a couple of trophies as well.  Fine.  Even then, I'm happy enough to leave it alone.  The Descendants lovers, up until today have more or less behaved themselves.  But things, as is their wont to do this time of year, are getting ugly.   I'm not going to pretend that the nine films selected as Best Picture nominees by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences represent the pinnacle of cinematic excellence in 2011.  Hardly anyone is making that claim.  What I can no longer abide nor stomach is the vitriol being thrown at The Artist, a film I'm not even particularly passionate about but, given the slate, is clearly in the upper tier of that list.  I'm especially baffled when this Artist hatred comes from people who say they love Payne's milquetoast paradise milieu. Rather than writing a review of The Descendants, I thought I would position it against films that were in the Oscar hunt this year that are being torn down, ripped-apart and otherwise lambasted.  These are all criticisms that, regardless of my opinions on the other films, these same charges should easily be levied (but are not) against The Descendants.  Not wanting to incur any rath (because my blog has such enormous readership) I'll merely paraphrase and refrain from directly quoting anyone (aforementioned link aside).


1. The Artist is a shallow trifle that does not stand on its own as a resonant piece of cinema.  In short, it's not about anything.

I've heard some variation of this more than I can even count this awards season.  To be fair, it's not an accusation that The Artist can refute with any modicum of truth.  But, hasn't The Artist always, more or less, presented itself as a film that is all about appropriation for the sake of novelty?  I have less problems with a film that wears its intentions on its sleeve and is rewarded or rebuked as such than I do with a film that claims, on paper, to be about something deeper than it really is.

The Descendants masquerades as a probing character study about a man dealing with grief while coming to terms with his role as a father to his two daughters.  I say masquerade because the film only half-commits to setting up this dynamic, then proceeds to treat its viewer to paint-by-numbers beats, arriving at a conclusion that feels at once predictable given the film's lack of ambition and unlikely given how little the film has worked to earn any of its payoffs.  Matt's (Clooney) narration tells us that he's "the back-up parent."  This bit of info is sandwiched between two scenes of he and his youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) getting along more or less famously.  Later, we're told (there's that word again) that Matt and eldest daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) have a troubled relationship and that she is the type of out-of-control adolescent that Sally Jesse used to ship off to boot camp in the 90s.  This is "evidenced" by a tame episode of teenage drinking, some uttered profanities (clutch the pearls!) and a therapeutic dunk in the pool, which is right about where Woodley's bafflingly lauded performance sinks for me (no pun intended).  Alex then tells Matt that her mother was cheating on him.  For the rest of the film, their relationship is easy like Sunday morning, with nothing to speak to the character details we were plainly and obtusely presented with.  The Descendants is a textbook case of a film that avoids conflict, even when logic dictates that there's no other place to go.  That, to me, is a hallmark of lazy, easy writing, which is almost never not shallow.  I can take shallow when I'm being sold shallow.  It's a little harder to swallow that pill when it's being presented as the great new story about the twenty-first century experience.

 2. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a chauvinistic male fantasy cloaked in something that resembles feminism if you squint and turn your head to the right.

Okay, so the bit about feminism may not apply directly to The Descendants, but I smell a rat where sexism is concerned.  Every female character in this film feels narratively neutered and is barely given a "character" to speak of.  Say what you will about Rooney Mara's Lisbeth Salander (and plenty has been said), but at least she's dynamic and she also exists in a film that relies on a conceit of heightened, stylized reality.  The women in The Descendants totally bend and conform to what the film needs them to do in any given moment and I would argue that they are just as much creations of male fantasy.  The difference is that here they are being presented as realistic reflections of the human condition.  Judy Greer's Julie Speer (the wife of the man Matt's wife cheated with) is at sea as well, being asked to play blissful and ignorant, then shrill and scorned with little modulation.  I've already spoken of Shailene Woodley's Alex, who seems to totally evaporate as if she was lobotomized in a scene that was left on the cutting room floor.  I also want to add that I have nothing against Woodley.  In every interview I've seen with her, she seemed lovely, articulate, primed and genuinely excited about awards season, even though her nomination did not come to pass.  Though the nominees are entitled to experience the distinction in their own way, on some selfish level, I have to admit that the season is more fun to watch with people who enjoy being there.  In short, I welcome more Shailene Woodley levels of enthusiasm, with the caveat that they come with performances to match the acclaim.  Sadly for her, when the pretty young things are just-misses for Oscar nominations, the opportunity rarely presents itself again.  One can look at examples ranging from Scarlett Johansson to Cameron Diaz of young performers who, at one time or another, just missed nominations for baity parts only to have the world slowly but surely realize their apparent actorly limitations.  Where Woodley is concerned, I'm more than happy to be proven wrong.  

I'm not sure what accounts for the simplistic ways in which this film fails to humanize Matt's comatose, philandering wife.  Yes, she is in a coma, but the film's desire to demonize this woman without any real context into the texture or dynamic of the marriage is rather glaring.  Payne will try to have you believe that this is not the case in the scene where Matt tearfully kisses his wife goodbye while uttering niceties wrapped in thinly veiled hostility.  Don't believe it!  He might as well be saying "Well, you are a cheating slut.  But we were married for a long time.  And you are the mother of my two lovely daughters with whom I have no real relationship problems.  And for that, I guess you're worth something.  Goodbye, whore."  I'm oversimplifying(?), but given the film's unwillingness to even entertain the idea that Matt King is not perfect (outside of him telling us that he's not perfect), I see some serious chauvinism afoot.

3. Young Adult...beyond the fact that the protagonist is completely unlikeable, am I supposed to believe this behavior?  No one acts like this.

Okay, so I'm cheating a little.  Young Adult is not technically in the Oscar race anymore (though, by all rights, it should be).  I like Clooney.  I think he's a talented actor.  The Descendants clearly likes him too.  I think he plays a big part in the aforementioned inability of the film to paint Matt King as a man with any real character flaws.  We are left with a movie about a gorgeous father of two whose bitch of a wife has the gall to step out on him.  Take likeable Clooney out of the equation and actually look at the sequence of events.  Matt King comes out looking like a grade-A asshole.  This may seem hypocritical to call his character an asshole and also say that he's not flawed.  Not so.  Why?  Because the film deifies him and does not depict his bad behavior as bad behavior.  What kind of man drags his daughters island hopping in search of the man who slept with his wife?  Okay, it was also in the interest of a business deal that would make this already wealthy man even wealthier.  Is that any better?  Especially since his wife is in a coma and already on borrowed time, but a confrontation with the philandering Matthew Lillard can surely wait until after the funeral.  And why, for the love of God, would he ever consent to his troubled teenage daughter bringing her cro magnon boyfriend along for the ride?  The small, easy bits of comic relief that Nick Krause provides aren't worth the questions his presence in the film raise.  When all is said and done, Matt King isn''t called to task for what I see as incredibly selfish, passive-aggressive transgressions.  At least in Young Adult, Charlize Theron's Mavis Gary pays somewhat of a price.  Matt King's actions could have easily been framed as a grief-stricken man on an ill-advised warpath.  It's hard to say whether such a change would fix what's wrong with this film at its core, but that would have made for some much needed ass-handing by Shailene Woodley to break up the uneventful, even-keel of the film's last act.  This is an unlikeable protagonist, coddled and protected by the writer/director and therefore made to look likeable.  This is a protagonist whose motivations aren't logical, but are given a pass by the film.  Am I supposed to believe/abide this behavior?

4. What's with The Ides of March nomination for adapted screenplay?  Is it doing anything new in the cinematic landscape?  Does it tell us anything about America that we don't already know?

Losing your wife really sucks.  Especially if she's cheating on you.  Living in Hawaii is not nearly the vacation you would think it is.  But make no mistake.  It's still Hawaii.  And Hawaii's beautiful.  And George Clooney is so handsome.  Thank you, The Descendants.  

5. The Help's ideas about race and ethnicity are indelicately handled in ways that make it at cross-purposes with its own message on one end and offensive on the other.

As a person of color, I found the hullabaloo surrounding The Help to be just a tad overstated.  The talking points about that film are all in line, certainly.  I feel its gravest sins are that it's not graceful, neither in pacing nor in the way it handles its subject matter, like a toddler holding china with oven mitts.  But what about race as it relates to The Descendants?

Clooney's narration contains a brief, atonal sequence that goes into the King family lineage, bending over backwards to double as an explanation to the viewer about why we're not dealing with any non-white Hawaiian protagonists.  I was flummoxed.  It was the only part of the movie that made me genuinely curious to read the source material.  Were the ethnic and cultural politics handled this clumsily in the novel?  Before you come at me with torches and pitchforks, I don't think that The Descendants is a decidedly racist film.  If anything, this strange subplot is likely a symptom of the film's larger problems.  The narrative is a hastily gathered collection of half-formed ideas that don't seem to coalesce with one another in a meaningful or satisfying way.  Among these are some very peculiar hypotheses about Hawaiian culture that suggest a certain level of unease on the part of the filmmakers about how white this movie is in contrast to pre-ordained ideas about its locale.  And Matt's oddly worded "We're the true Hawaiians!" (or something) speech at the end certainly does this assertion no favors, nor do the twee music choices throughout the film. When it comes to whiteness vs. other, The Help is clumsy, but well-meaning.  That's way more credit than I can give to The Descendants.


None of the films mentioned above are films that I no-holds-barred love, nor are they without their own unique flaws and shortcomings.  I do at least understand why people love them.  There's real craft and commitment to conceit in a lot of cases, even if I don't agree with the love.

I hold no ill-will against Alexander Payne.  I love Election and Sideways (in that order).  There are large portions of About Schmidt that really work for me.  Citizen Ruth, while not without its limitations (there are definite moments in that movie where it's clear that we're watching a first-time director) is an interesting watch.  That being said, The Descendants is unquestionably Payne's worst film to date, I'm sad to report.  I sincerely ask anyone who loves The Descendants and thinks it deserves the pedigree it has received to point me to the article that explains why.  If no such article exists, write it yourself.  Refute my points one-by-one.  I'm not being facetious.  I'm genuinely looking for a level of discussion that I'm just not seeing from people who love The Descendants and are quick to point the finger at other movies as being bastions of mediocrity that brought AMPAS down a few notches in their estimations.  I wrote this long piece, not to dump all over Payne or Clooney.  I wrote it because it seems like the most misguided thing someone could say about The Descendants, even if they are cool on it, is that it's bland, but enjoyable.  That is simply not the case.

Grade: D+

1 comment:

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

This is a fine writeup, though I feel badly for my friends who do like the film and I don't have any bad feelings towards it, honestly - it just sort of sits there, unobtrusively, but you offer a number of things to ruminate.