George Clooney Sleepwalks through "The Descendants"

If only the scriptwriter was this thoughtful!


Directed by Alexander Payne

Fox Searchlight, 115 mins. Rated R (language)

* * ½

The Descendants has garnered decent reviews, which we should interpret as still another sign of the shallow yield of 2011. In truth, it’s neither a good film, nor a bad one—merely an inconsequential one. It’s also a walk through for George Clooney, who looks rested, tanned, and unchallenged.

The film is set on Oahu and Kauai. Clooney plays Matt King, a big-time lawyer from an extended family that traces its ancestry to 19th century missionaries that came to Hawaii to civilize the natives. If you need to know more, consult Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes, a book that writer and director Alexander Payne seems to have cribbed in developing a back story on why the Kings own so much land. Matt King’s wife, Elizabeth, is involved in a boating accident that leaves her in a vegetative state, and overnight he must set aside his Type A personality and develop parenting skills to deal with his daughters: 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley).

Clooney is first seen wearing a Hawaiian print shirt and he either has a fleet of these, or he seldom changes it. Take that as a metaphor for how few surprises are in store in this script. Payne tries to interject a few twists—an impending development deal, Elizabeth’s secret affair, a resentful father-in-law, Scottie’s temper tantrums, Alex’s teen angst—but everything in this film is like standing on a seaside cliff and gazing into the distance: you can see what’s coming long before it arrives. Particularly lame is the role of Sid (Nick Krause) as Alex’s inappropriate boyfriend. He seems to be in the film to call people “dude” and offer some faux Hawaiian Falstaffian comic relief. It’s a silly role that serves little purpose but then again, much of the script is silly, including Matt’s very lame caper to discover and confront Elizabeth’s lover.

We never see Clooney perspire in this film and that too is a metaphor. He’s never Matt King; he’s Clooney being Clooney—smooth, confident, calm, and in control (even when the part calls for him to act as if he’s not). The guy’s wife is dying for heaven’s sake, and he can’t muster a tear until the end!? Alex is a little monster and all he can say is, “Hey! Watch your mouth.” Will Alex grow up? Will Matt learn to be a dad? What does your view from the cliff tell you?

Payne has directed truly snarky films such as Election (1999) and Sideways (2004), but his script for The Descendants is lost in a sea of sentimentality and forced redemption. The kids don’t act like real kids, Clooney doesn’t act like he’s really anguished, and everything else in the film—except Judy Geer’s small role as a cuckolded wife—seems contrived. Label The Descendants a Terms of Endearment film: one that pulls at the heartstrings and might induce a sniffle or two. Once you think about it, though, you’ll be embarrassed that you broke out the Kleenex box. It’s 115 minutes of diversion—nothing less and certainly nothing more. Number me among those who want to see Clooney stretch himself; we know he can channel Cary Grant, but can he do anything else?


Top Films of 2011: Making the Best of a Bad Situation

No easy answers down this rabbit hole.

Making a list of the top ten films of 2011 is a bit like compiling the most nutritious junk foods for the National Institute of Health. In a better film year most of these films would have struggled to make the list and my top film, Rabbit Hole, would have been a bottom-of-the-pack choice. The best films I saw last year were all restored prints of classics: Les enfants du paradis (1945), Les diaboliques (1955), All About Eve (1950)…

The Academy Awards has the weird idea that a film is considered a 2011 film if it opens in either La-La -Land or New York before December 31. We take the view that a 2011 film is one that opened in a place called “the United States” during 2011, even if was made the year before; hence some on this list were considered for awards last year (which merely underscores the paucity of quality for 2011).

10 (tie): The Greatest Movie Ever Sold and Exit through the Gift Shop. Both of these quirky documentaries reveal how buzz can be manufactured and marketed, the first by exposing the role of product placement, and the second by showing how life literally follows art. A metaphor for why today’s culture is often more hype than substance?

9. My Week with Marilyn: Not a deep film, but Michelle Williams is stunning as Marilyn Monroe, and a talented cast transforms a slight script.

8. The Illusionist: A charming (and nearly silent) animated film about the dying days of vaudeville and a middle-aged magician’s big heart.

7. Melancholia: If the apocalypse is this beautiful, bring it on! This film is everything Malick’s Tree of Life wasn’t. That list begins with the word “interesting.”

6. The Hedgehog: A rare instance in which the film of a popular novel is equally good and the liberties taken work. Learn why 11-year-old Paloma wants to kill herself when she turns 12, and why she might change her mind.

5. Martha Marcy Mae Marlene: A stunning performance from the luminous Elizabeth Olsen in a creepy film about the allure of cults. Redemption or damnation?

4. Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune: A smart documentary about the late protest singer Phil Ochs that shows the power, the glory, and the hubris. Ochs was flawed, but we sure could use his voice now.

3. Blue Valentine: If you need more proof that Michelle Williams is the real deal, this will provide it. She and Ryan Gosling play a matched set that manages to clash in a relationship that should be, but never quite is.

2. Another Year: This superb British film from last year didn’t do much at the box office because it’s strictly an adult film, and it stars veteran actors long past their pretty boy/pretty girl prime. It’s Mike Leigh’s take on how the middle class and working class live in such radically different worlds that even the well intentioned manage to miscommunicate.

1. Rabbit Hole: Nicole Kidman has made herself into a fine actress, which she demonstrates in this family tragedy. What happens when a dream world shatters? Where does one find solace? A film long on hope and short on tidy resolutions. It deserves top dog status for avoiding clich├ęs and fairy tale endings.

Note: There are longer reviews of most of these films on the blog. Click on the movie madness list (left hand side of the home page) to see individual reviews.


Worst Films Viewed in 2011

An action sequence from Somewhere.

2011 will not go down in anyone’s film annals as a stellar year for cinema. In that spirit it makes sense to begin the end-of-the-year wrap-up with the stinkers. Tune in tomorrow for the best-of list.

Our rule is that we dishonor bad as we encounter it. Some of these films were released prior to 2011, but we only saw them on video. (A few were so bad that it made sense that they went straight to video, and some were made outside the US and never opened at local theaters.)

In descending order of purification:

9. Fish Tank: A film with a strong lead actress, but it’s basically British poor white trash that should have never left the council flats. Who can behave more badly: the cast of loser adults or the 15-year-old loser-in-training?

8. Meek’s Cutoff: Much ballyhooed and gorgeous to look at–if you want to spend 104 minutes watching a painting on the screen. Nothing happens. Nothing.

7. Love and Other Drugs: See Ann Hathaway naked. Best viewed with the sound off.

6. Cave of Forgotten Dreams: Stunning prehistoric art shot by Werner Herzog that would have made a stunning 15-minute silent film. Alas, it’s 90 minutes of Herzog’s pretentious mystical musings on….? Damned if we know.

5. Waiting for Superman: A rightwing attack on teacher unions disguised as caring about kids. It’s really a GOP defense of vouchers pretending to be a lottery drama.

4. J. Edgar: A lot of money spent so that Leonardo DiCaprio can bring J. Edgar Hoover to life and reduce him to listless limpness. How can you make Hoover boring? Leo manages.

3. Tree of Life: Pretentious crap from Terrence Malick. A film about the beginnings of life and the struggle for existence across the eons that unwittingly redefines the term “timeless.”

2. Thor: Not good enough to be a comic book-brought-to-life, and not bad enough to be camp. The only thing louder than Chris Hemsworth’s grunts is the collective groan of the audience.

1. Somewhere: Sofia Coppolla should go the California and manage her old man’s wine estate–anything except direct. It would be wrong to say Somewhere goes nowhere. That would have been more interesting. Let’s just say that it opens with a car driving in circles and goes downhill from there.