“The Descendants” –Decent But Not Great

 

I recently saw “The Descendants” at the Napa Valley Film Festival. I had high expectations. What’s not to like about either George Clooney or Alexander Payne?  Both of them are very talented entertainment superstars.  However, neither George Clooney’s pretty face nor Alexander Payne’s mastery of comedy and pathos (“Election”, “About Schmidt”, and “Sideways”, to say nothing of the hit TV series “Hung”) are sufficient to render this movie anything but mildly entertaining.  It’s decent, but not great comedy or acting.

Clooney’s Matt King, a workaholic, emotionally distant Honolulu attorney and land baron, is descended from royal Hawaiian blood.  His great-great-grandmother was a Hawaiian princess who married a haole (non-Hawaiian).  As the executor of an enormous land trust of beachfront property, Matt must decide to keep the land unspoiled or sell it to developers so that his relatives can reap millions of dollars from the proceeds.

But Matt’s major problem is with his family. A boating accident has left his wife comatose, challenging his negligible parenting skills.  Their two daughters are a ten-year old girl,  Scottie (Amara Miller, a scene-stealing newcomer),  and a stereotypically sullen teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), whose behavior has landed her in boarding school. Matt is blindsided not only by grief, two daughters who need emotional support, but also by betrayal.

What did I like about “”The Descendants”?  First, I liked the lived-in feeling of seeing Hawaii’s real residents–some of whom are scruffy, overweight, and wear muumuus instead of teeny-weeny bikinis.  This is not the postcard version of Hawaii.  The Hawaiian sound track reinforces the island culture.  Second, small roles by some of the supporting actors have the dazzling portions of the dialog, especially the father-in-law (Robert Forster) and Judy Greer, whose scenes are memorable: subtle facial expressions, suggesting a nobility and integrity of spirit. The wise but fragile character portrayed in a disarming way by Amara Miller keeps this film from devolving into TV soap.  Flashes of humor in some of the dialog between Clooney’s character and the two daughters are hilarious.

However, it is the scenes in which Clooney dominates the screen, which shred even the thinnest threads of plausibility.  In one scene Matt King, after saying goodbye to the last of his friends, drops to his knees outside his home’s circular driveway.  This canned acting gesture, purportedly conveying intense emotion, has been overdone and is overwrought– just a lazy shortcut for anguish and grief, like throwing a glass across the room to depict anger.  Clooney and Payne–you are both much better than that!

The Descendants has received widespread critical acclaim. The film scored an approval rating of 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert gave the film a perfect four stars.  I would give it two stars– light fluff for the rainy night when you want to be entertained with a forgettable, but decent flick.

“The Ides of March”–Beware, Beware!

  Is it possible for any political candidate to win and yet remain true to his or her original values?  Movies about dirty politics such as “Wag the Dog”, “All the President’s Men”, “The Manchurian Candidate”, “Primary Colors”, “Bob Roberts” and “The Candidate” (to name a few) has yet another winner in this category–“The Ides Of March”.  Based upon the Beau Willimon play, Farragut North,  “The Ides of March” explores new ground as well as covering familiar territory about media’s role in politics. (Willimon, by the way, worked on Howard Dean’s campaign for president).

With a star-studded cast, “The Ides of March” focuses on a press secretary, Stephen Meyers (the fabulous Ryan Gosling) as an idealistic media wizard who believes in his boss, Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) currently running in a pivotal Ohio primary for the Democratic presidential nomination.  As the movie opens, Governor Morris is an uncompromising, idealistic liberal who believes he can make a difference. Meyers has obtained his prestigious job due to his friendship with Morris’ seasoned campaign manager, Paul Zara (underplayed subtly by Philip Seymour Hoffman). The  opposing candidate, Senator Pullman, has an equally experienced campaign advisor, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti).  All those who are driving the campaign strategy are pragmatists–cynical and cold-blooded analysts– except for the young Stephen Meyers. Above all, however, Stephen Meyers believes mostly in himself.

Gosling yet again is the touchstone of the film, playing with a ferociousness and intensity we have seen in “Murder by Numbers”, “Lars and the Real Girl”, “Blue Valentine” and “Drive”. In the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the Ohio primary, Steve is obsessively focused on the governor’s campaign victory.   Others do not register on his radar:  the young intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), the New York Times journalist (Marisa Tomei), even his boss Paul Zara except when they  can support his move up the ladder. Personal and political ambitions are inextricably intertwined.  Motives are suspicious.  Mistrust and betrayal are inescapable. Concealment reveals to astonishing effect!

The 2012 US presidential campaign is  a year away, and yet many people seem already discouraged and demoralized.  Which raises the salient question about  political reality in the US today– If you’re too principled to play dirty, can you be a winner or is the game stacked against you?  Paul Zara (Hoffman’s character)–in one of my favorite scenes–complains that Democrats are so worried about being accused of not playing fair that they inevitably lose to Republicans, who are not so scrupulous. It’s why the Democrats perpetually have to play catch-up.  They never figure out how to play the game themselves.  Perhaps a bit polemical, the movie’s theme remains the same:  the winner in the campaign game is the one with the biggest advantage–shaping the media and backroom payoffs for personal gain. Those who do not consider politics a blood sport shouldn’t play.

“The Ides of March” is a thoughtful political drama, which may not result in  box office success.  The story is not a narrative of hope.  However, the last shot of the film is well worth the price of a ticket in itself:  brilliant, chilling, and epitomizing editorial self-control.  No other ending could do so much with so little.  A masterpiece of restraint!