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Our review of The Descendants, published March 27th, 2012, is also available.
Everything just happens.
Alexander Payne's The Descendants was one of the most critically celebrated films of 2011, racking up appearances on countless "10 Best" lists, critics' awards, Golden Globes and five Academy Award nominations (it went home with only one win, for Best Adapted Screenplay). Is it as good as everyone said, or was it just one of the rare adult, character-driven dramas that's in increasingly short supply in the current blockbuster marketplace?
Facts of the Case
When a boating accident puts the wife of Hawaii lawyer Matt King (George Clooney, Out of Sight) into a coma, new secrets from the years they spent married begin to surface. Seeking answers, Matt takes his troubled daughters (Shailene Woodley, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, and newcomer Amara Miller) to confront one of those secrets. At the same time, Matt has been placed in charge of decide the fate of 25,000 acres of land on Kaua'i that he and his cousins inherited in a family trust that will be dissolved unless a decision is made. Life is full of difficult choices.
Alexander Payne's fifth film, The Descendants, is more About Schmidt than Election. If you're a fan of the former, that's probably good news. The fact that I've always considered it Payne's weakest film should give some indication of my mixed-to-positive feelings towards his latest.
One of Payne's best qualities as a filmmaker is his stubbornness to romanticize things the way so many movies do. It's evident in the way he photographs the movie's Hawaiian locations, which manage to be beautiful (because it's still Hawaii) without looking like the same travel video it's made to be by every other movie. It's a real place, in which real people actually live. It's evident in the way that he shoots Clooney's wife in her hospital bed, which is jarring and unpleasant, but only because we're not used to seeing sickness and death look like that in movies. I've been in those hospital rooms, and that's what it looks like. It's not Debra Winger saying goodbye to her kids, or Ali McGraw getting prettier the sicker she gets. Watching Robert Forster kiss her forehead through a cracked door is one of the most moving images of 2011.
It's evident in the quiet moments, too; yes, the movie's signature shot of George Clooney running down a hill in flip-flops (show in all of the trailers and TV spots to make the movie look more like a comedy than it actually ends up being) is absurd and played for laughs, but there's an honesty to the desperation that's on display that speaks to Payne's strengths. It's that kind of desperation that's central to all of his movies, which (with the exception of his first, the anything-goes satire Citizen Ruth) all focus on male desperation in the face of loss. People are hurt, and, as a result, wind up hurting other people.
There are no villains in the movie, though, just characters who have made mistakes or bad choices. Payne, who has in the past been accused of sneering condescension towards his subjects, doesn't judge his characters. People who have done bad things turn out to be human, not the black and white monsters we're used to. Characters who would otherwise be sympathetic saints aren't quite so perfect, either. Payne isn't interested in absolutes; his films have always explored the grey area of human nature, where our better angels meet our deepest flaws.
The cast is, for the most part, excellent. Clooney is great, because Clooney is usually great, and it's good to see him work against his image to create a character who has been given a number of advantages in life but has still managed to make a mess of things. Shailene Woodley, as his oldest daughter, was singled out for her work here, and she's deserving of the praise as well—hers is one of the most believable and best-realized teenage characters in recent memory. Judy Greer is given a great scene near the end. Even Matthew Lillard—yes, Matthew Lillard—is very good in the movie, and his scenes with Clooney have a frankness that many Hollywood movies shy away from. He has the single best line in the film, when confronted by Clooney, who says (in reference to an affair) "Nothing just happens." Lillard responds "Everything just happens," which is not only the theme at the heart of the movie but also a kind of reality check for Hollywood movies, the majority of which put forth the idea that life unfolds via destiny or deliberate agency. But Lillard is right. Everything just happens.
But for every moment of honesty and sticky emotion that Payne achieves in the movie, there are one or two more that feel hackneyed and familiar. From the on-the-nose narration that runs throughout to the character of Sid, arguably the worst thing in the movie, there's too much stuff in The Descendants that could only ever happen in a movie, and it steps on the reality that's achieved in the best sequences. At times, the Oscar-winning screenplay (by Payne, Jim "Dean Pelton" Rash and Nat Faxon) overreaches, too, attempting to draw connections between family bonds and the legacies we leave behind that are underdeveloped—the audience is left to fill in too many of the blanks for it to work. Letting the viewer unpack a movie's meaning is usually desirable, but there's a difference between deliberately vague and anemic. Sometimes The Descendants leans towards the latter.
The Descendants arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Fox, doing right by Phedon Papamicheal's beautiful photography with a very handsome 1080p HD transfer that makes the most of the tropical locations and scenery. Fine detail is excellent throughout (check out Clooney's stubble!), skin tones are warm and natural and the image boasts a layer of grain that gives it the look of film. The DTS-HD audio track is totally adequate—probably even very good, except that it's harder to tell when there's nothing show-offy about it. Dialogue is consistently clear, balanced well throughout with music cues (Payne uses almost entirely traditional Hawaiian music) and the occasional sound effect. It's a quiet, talky movie, and Fox's Blu-ray doesn't try to dress it up in any kind of distracting way.
The disc comes with a fairly substantial bonus section, though it's mostly a case of quantity over quality. The majority of the supplemental section is comprised of featurettes that cover various aspects of production: "Everybody Loves George," in which cast members gush over the star; "Casting;" "Working with Alexander;" "Waiting for the Light;" plus a bunch of short pieces on the Hawaiian locale, including "Working with Water," "Hawaiian Style" and "The Real Descendants" all cover shooting in the islands. The best Hawaiian-based featurette is a vintage documentary reel called "The World Parade" showing old footage of the state. Two deleted scenes have been included, as has the original theatrical trailer. A short conversation between Clooney and Payne would have really been worthwhile if it were allowed to run, say, an hour instead of just 12 minutes; instead, it's too brief and truncated, but it's the closest to a commentary track as the disc has to offer.
Both a standard DVD copy and digital copy of the movie are also included.
The Descendants is a good movie with occasional flashes of greatness, and if it was a bit over-celebrated last Awards season, it's easy to understand why: excellent performances (in particular a good movie star turn from one of the country's favorites), critically adored director, heavy subject matter handled with the right amount of lightness. It's a movie made up of a handful of terrific puzzle pieces, even if those pieces don't all come together.
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