Descending on The Descendants

OK, I admit it. I’m the one. I’m the guy who doesn’t like The Descendants. Doesn’t like it enough, I should say. Doesn’t think it’s the best movie to come along since Citizen Kane. Sorry. I wanted to like it. I’m a fan of Alexander Payne, the director. I liked About Schmidt a lot, Sideways, too, though less.

The title comes from the back-story, which is a problem in and of itself. George Clooney plays Matt King, a real estate lawyer who runs the family trust that owns 25,000 pristine acres in Hawaii. We’re led to believe that the descendants vie with each other over what should be done with the property, most of them wanting Clooney’s character to approve the sale of the land. But in fact, these characters and this conflict are mere background. Even at the big picnic meeting where all will be decided, they mostly just stand around drinking beer and eating hotdogs. And Payne cuts away before we see any real reaction to the decision Clooney makes. Even the director’s not that interested in the back-story.

Beau Bridges does a great job as the aging hippie/surfer cousin whose closest to Clooney’s character, but he doesn’t have enough of an effect on Clooney or on the plot to matter. He does have a lovely moment, though, when he threatens Clooney in the friendliest way imaginable.

At one point, Clooney’s character reassures his family that “This is all going to be over in a couple of days.” He needn’t have bothered. None of them is all that worried about what will happen. If the land is sold and a resort is built on it, the family will no longer have a 25,000-acre campground.

The land is beautiful but it doesn’t have the importance of the ever-promised, never-realized trip to the lighthouse in Virginia Woolf’s novel. And it should.

In fact, if the whole back-story were removed, it would lift out as cleanly as the skeleton from a cooked trout, and no harm would come to the movie. In fact, it would focus the movie on its true heart. Nevertheless, the movie is named for this unnecessary dimension of the story.

At the true heart of the movie is one man’s dying wife and what he learns about—and how he deals with—her secret life. Payne is especially good at capturing that uneasy balance between comedy and tragedy, and he’s at his best here. We don’t know whether to chuckle at Clooney’s ineptitude as a father and husband or to roll our eyes in recognition of ourselves. In the end, the proper response is—both.

The actors are strong, especially Shailene Woodley, who plays Clooney’s disaffected daughter with the kind of reckless bravado that only the deeply wounded can pull off. Nick Krause, with his crooked smile and slacker’s drawl, is good as her boyfriend. And Robert Forster has a good turn as the cranky grandfather who blames his son-in-law for his daughter’s coma.

Near the beginning of the movie, Clooney’s character says, “I’m ready to change, ready to be a real husband, a real father.” It’s one of those be-careful-what-you-wish-for moments. Change hits him like a two-by-four to the face. He’s a man who’s tugged in different directions, not so much by the relatives who want to sell the family land, but by his conflicting feelings for his dying wife.

Matt King is Clooney’s best performance. Here he drops the little quiver of self-satisfaction that’s part of most of the characters he plays. Instead, he’s a little slack-jawed, a little out-of-it. He’s a man who has never fully inhabited his own emotions. So when the worst happens—and then something even worse than that—he has no idea what to feel or how to react. It’s a tough part to play, and Clooney makes a worthy attempt. But you never quite believe a man with his good looks and intensity could be so naïve, so lost.

For the record, I have the same problem with Jack Nicholson‘s performance in About Schmidt. You never for a moment believe that an actor as edgy as Nicholson can be as simple-minded as his character. Acting is more than impersonation.

For instance, during the scene where Clooney’s character speaks his heart to his comatose wife, I couldn’t help remembering similar scenes from movies as different as Magnolia and Last Tango in Paris—deathbed monologues that take the top of your head off. Clooney’s monologue barely ruffles your hair.

You go to an Alexander Payne movie partly for the good writing. And there are some very funny and poignant lines throughout: “I’m the backup parent, the understudy,” “In Hawaii, some of the most powerful people look like bums and stuntmen.”

And there are others that aren’t as quotable but nicely honor the mystery and complexity of life. When his wife’s lover defends their affair by saying, “It just happened,” Clooney rejects this easy defense with “Nothing just happens.” And the man counters with “Everything just happens.” Who’s right? One of the best things about the movie is that it gives us no easy answers or easy targets.

I like The Descendants, but it’s a movie with problems. Forgive me if I don’t join the conga line of unadulterated praise.

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The Ides Have It

What Hollywood does well is melodrama. And when it’s at its best, it’s able to make melodrama bump up against real drama, which is what happens in The Ides of March. Somehow, without car chases, gunfights, or explosions, the movie’s makers have been able to ratchet up the suspense and thrills. It might have been called D.C. Confidential for all the movie’s secrets and surprises.

At the center is the character played by Ryan Gosling, Stephen Meyer (most often referred to as “Stevie”), a talented young campaign strategist who’s well-liked even by his enemies, a man who believes that “nothing bad happens when you’re doing the right thing.” That philosophy—and the man himself—will be tested.

The story’s inciting incident—if you want to get all dramaturgical about it—is a conversation. More specifically, it’s a decision regarding that conversation that threatens to send everyone and everything off the rails.

George Clooney, who has come into his own as a director (the kind, like Clint Eastwood, who knows how to make the camera unobtrusive), has surrounded himself with solid secondary characters. Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, and Evan Rachel Wood are especially fine. Giamatti and Hoffman are the old pros of the campaign trail, guys with guts (actual guts) who do what needs to be done, who have pared down their ideals to a bare minimum needed for survival and self-respect. Tomei is strong as the reporter who alternatively befriends and berates her sources. And Wood has some great meet-cute moments as her character gets to know Gosling’s, though from the beginning you think there’s more to her than meets the eye, which is a tribute to her acting chops. Remember that confrontation scene she played as Mickey Rourke’s daughter in The Wrestler, the way it lifted off the screen, took on a life of its own? Great stuff.

Clooney himself does a fine job playing liberal democratic governor Mike Morris, a man who’s smart, sincere, and maybe just a little too impressed with himself for his own good, the kind of guy who can barely keep from smiling and giving a shiver of self-satisfaction over his own wonderfulness.

Gosling carries the movie in the sense that his arc is the one we follow with the most interest. His “Stevie” is young and talented but untried. Gosling, who often plays characters filled with reticence, plays this one with striding self-confidence (even his voice is lower), a man who knows he’s headed for great things. Heck, what could go wrong? Only everything.

Here’s a good example of Ryan Gosling’s talent as an actor. In both Drive and The Ides of March, there’s at least one wordless shot of Gosling in profile while he’s driving. Each shot is remarkably parallel to the other. In Drive the character is afraid he’s about to lose the only thing that has meaning in his life—his budding romance. In Ides his career and his entire philosophy of life hang in the balance. And yet, despite the similar circumstances, Gosling’s intensity hums at a different emotional frequency for each. Other factors might have an effect on these shots: framing, lighting, even makeup, and certainly the impact of the story-so-far exerting pressure on the moment and on the audience. But I think the primary difference is what the actor brought to each moment—the different histories of his characters, the different dangers, the different sense of the future—and all of it conveyed wordlessly. They’re fine distinctions, yes, but great performances are made of small distinctions like this.

The Ides of March, like the best political thrillers, shows the seamy side of politics. I know, I know, I hear you asking, “Is there any other side?” But Clooney and his team do make you feel you’re watching the death of a dream. Ides is not about the politics of Democrats or Republicans. It’s about the politics of people, about what some southern smarty-pants once called “the human heart in conflict with itself.”

P.S. The Sleeper was on the edge of her seat throughout, muttering “Et tu, brute.”

P.P.S. Why is it that the talkers always make a point of sitting behind me? This time, it was a group of four friends, one of whom kept telling the others what she thought would happen next. And what’s the etiquette? A polite throat-clearing? An air horn? A large sock filled with manure? I always figure if I say anything, they’ll make it seem as though I’m the one making a disturbance. I’d welcome your suggestions.