December 17, 2011

The Descendants

Are modern filmmakers afraid of emotion?

Hip as we audience members might like to think we are, we go to movies for catharsis. We spend our lives so glazed over and blitzed out that we turn to movies to help us reconnect with the emotions that we've buried deep inside, and then we learn how to express them on cinematic terms: we stage, we enact high drama using the minutiae of our daily living as its impetus, ignoring the fact that the intensity of the performance doesn't match the very undramatic qualities of our lives. And so when December rolls around, in metronomic timing with the holiday season, the "important" movies are released: the ones about Big Serious Life Problems: family dramas and poignant biographies of famous people who made Big Choices and "changed the world." We flock to these movies like geese to bread crumbs.

Movies often used to be histrionic in terms of expressing emotion. Perhaps filmmakers and studio executives were keenly aware of what audiences wanted: big emotions for the big screen. (This might have come about during Hollywood's ill-fated attempt to compete with TV in the 1950s.)  But then the march toward realism reshaped what people thought went into a good story, so the trick became this: A filmmaker had to convey great emotions without making it obvious or overwrought. Soon this obligation was taken up by the smaller movies as the gulf began to widen between the mindless big-budget Hollywood fodder and the self-important indie movies.

Now we have The Descendants, which is being heralded by many and is already up for major awards. George Clooney, playing a lawyer and family man named Matt King, is receiving high praise for his performance as the husband who must face certain cold realities after his wife Elizabeth goes into a coma: she was cheating on him, and he wasn't exactly Husband-- or father-- of the Year.

The title of the movie refers partly to a land deal between Matt's relatives and a commercial developer. The land, some of the most beautiful untapped oceanfront property in Hawaii, has been part of their family for generations, but the money from the sale would pull many of Matt's relatives out of debt and into permanent financial security. Matt must prove to us that he's with it enough to resist the financial lure of selling out and patch things up with his comatose wife and "troubled" teenage daughter in two hours or less.

But the title also refers, inadvertently but most definitively, to us, and to movies. This movie is a descendant not only of the bloated, emotionally overcharged family dramas, but of the slight, we-can't-be-cheesy-if-want-to-be-hip indie films. The director, Alexander Payne, has made some of these before (About Schmidt and Sideways). Payne somehow manages both: he cuts away whenever he's afraid of the movie being too serious, and when the wife of Elizabeth's other man comes to visit, erupting in tears and platitudes about forgiving her, Matt nudges her out of the room. "That's enough. That's enough." I think this movie wants to have it both ways. The moment with Clooney's character trying to silence the gushing spouse was to me representative of the director's desire not to be too emotional. But emotional enough for the movie to feel important and to be a major contender for some Oscars.

Nevertheless, This movie is quite good. It has a funny side to it that punctuates the scenes, keeping them from being maudlin. And as much as Payne seems unsure of expressing the dramatic emotions of the story, he manages to do it, to let the characters and the audience feel for what's going on in the movie.

I was impressed by the performance of Shailene Woodley, as Matt's teenage daughter. She gave such a strong performance that I found myself more interested in her story than in her father's. People will assume George Clooney is giving a good performance because he's George Clooney, and while he's certainly better than say a Kevin Costner or a Tom Cruise, he's not always as believable as you'd like him to be; maybe he's too identifiable, the way Tom Hanks is. You always know you're watching George Clooney play a lawyer whose wife is dying. Apparently this works with most people. Some may even believe that Tom Hanks himself served in World War II.

The Descendants is entertaining, and affecting, and I really liked it. But why does the seriousness of the subject matter predetermine a movie's chances at being considered great or important or award-worthy? And moreover, why do all these movies have to come in December? (This question may be a no-brainer, but is worth uttering nonetheless.)

Gazing at the coming attractions, I couldn't help but wonder if filmmakers and studios and audiences have all gone soft in the head and hard in the heart. We're getting more crap than ever. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close purports to be about a child's emotional journey after the death of his father (played by Tom Hanks, the Father of Movie Audiences, apparently) in the World Trade Center. The bad title I will put aside to argue about another day, because the movie itself looks so preposterous. Now that we've established Tom Hanks as a WWII veteran, we can also place him in the WTC. Is there any American tragedy this man hasn't been through?

We are indeed the descendants of some very unfortunate choices in Hollywood that have made the state of movies so depressing (all money-related). Yes, good films continue to be made, but they tend to be overlooked when we can't brand them as good for us, or massive in their scope or their emotional appeal. The Descendants is an example of a good movie that suffers from wanting to pander and not wanting to at the same time. It's a miracle that something worthwhile and engrossing was able to register, as indeed it seems more and more a miraculous occurrence any time there's a good movie to be seen. I think The Descendants transcends all the self-seriousness and all the slightness that has been popping up on the screen over the last ten or fifteen years.

With Amara Miller, Judy Greer, Robert Forster, Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard, Mary Birdsong, Rob Huebel, and Michael Ontkean. Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings.

1 comment:

Li said...

I am woefully out-of-touch when it comes to current/recent movies, but based on your review, this sounds interesting.

Your first full paragraph kind of made me laugh and shake my head ruefully. "We enact high drama using the minutiae of our daily living as its impetus, ignoring the fact that the intensity of the performance doesn't match the very undramatic qualities of our lives." Too true.