How often do you find yourself sitting down to enjoy a film that you're genuinely excited for? Not just the excitement of it being a movie you've been looking forward to, but one that the critics are calling "The best film of the year" or "a stunning masterpiece that will open up your soul" or some such hyperbole. It makes you feel like you're about to partake in something important: a piece of art that is so critically lauded that it becomes a socially shared experience like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or Jersey Shore. Now, after getting bombarded with all the hype and accolades, how many times does that piece of art actually live up to the standards you've already set? Not very often, right? I think that might have been my problem with The Descendants, a very good movie that I'm sure will do well come awards season, but that never quite crosses the line into "great."
The one thing all critical darlings have in common is that they have to have strong central characters for the audience to latch onto. Juno wouldn't have been the hit it was if it didn't have Ellen Page's delightfully droll, yet emotionally fragile, performance front and center to anchor us into the hyper-stylized Diablo Cody script. Luckily, The Descendants features a wonderfully understated performance by George Clooney that draws us into the world of a Hawaiian land baron and the new life he has to create for himself when he finds out his comatose wife was having an affair. Clooney has the amazing ability to shed his media-enhanced movie star skin and sink into emotionally complex characters. He never relies on his good looks and charm (unless the role calls for it) but rather relies on the fact that he's a much smarter actor than we give him credit for. He could coast by on being a personality actor like Clint Eastwood or Sean Connery, but instead he always seems to be searching for roles that challenge not only him, but the public's perception of what a leading man is supposed to be.
It's Clooney's performance that threatens to push this movie into "great" territory, but it's the script's lack of emotional resonance that keeps it "good." Clooney's Matt King is a very likable guy and when he finds out his wife was having an affair with a man she genuinely loved and might have been planning to leave him for, all the decisions he makes are understandable, but they don't help us to get to know him better. He's still somewhat of an enigma, even by the film's final frames, and scenes that I would have found emotionally devastating in other films left me feeling like an observer instead of a participant. Small, quiet movies like this need to find the balance between being crowd pleasing and thematically resonant, and The Descendants does a wonderful job with that, but it sacrifices the character beats that would have fully drawn me in. I expected to be a blubbering mess by the end of the film, but instead I received a mild warm and fuzzy feeling.
I know this review might have sounded negative, but it's really not. It's a fine film with lovely performances and Alexander Payne's crisp direction keeps the film moving at a brisk pace, while never feeling rushed or pandering. Maybe I was expecting more of Payne's withering satire about men left adrift in the world like he brought us with Sideways, Election and About Schmidt. Instead, though, he plays it fairly safe with a straightforward tale of a husband and father coming to grips with being both of those things. Or maybe with expectations set at a reasonable level, the film will play as great to some instead of just "good" like it was for me.
Three 12 Stars
Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Judy Greer and Robert Forster.
Directed By Alexander Payne