The Descendants

The Descendants, George Clooney’s latest vehicle, was a film that somehow passed me by until now. Not seduced by the trailers or advertisements, I was worried the film may stray too far into unfortunate over-sentimentality and drama for its own sake. I should have, of course, known better – George Clooney has delivered consistently over the past decade, and other than last year’s Ides of March, I had no reason to doubt his judgement. While the rest of the cast was composed largely of relative unknowns, director Alexander Payne also brings a strong track record from Paris, Je t’Aime, About Schmidt, and Sideways. The Descendants is his first feature since 2004, and it honestly delivers, I felt, on every emotional note the film is meant to play. Luckily, it also manages to avoid the hazards of pushing those feeling on its audience.

Which may be why certain audiences that find themselves not identifying with the main character might not feel it. The main character is Matt King, played, naturally, by George Clooney himself, whose wife is in terminal condition following a boating accident. The Hawaiian land baron is forced to deal with his children, relaying the news of his wife’s upcoming passing to friends and relatives, dealing with the realization of his wife’s unfaithfulness, and making a decision on a large, until now untouched, piece of real estate in Hawaii. If reading the previous sentence made you feel exhausted, you are a step closer to understanding Matt King’s character. The good news is that none of the preceding plots are handled in a clichéd manner. While some characters look like cardboard cutouts at the beginning, this impression never lasts, whether that applies to King’s elder daughter Alexandra, or her stoner friend Sid. There are no good or bad characters, just ones reacting, fairly realistically and appropriately for their natures, to the situations they find themselves in.

Matt King is not the nicest guy you’ll see in cinema. He makes, on a regular basis, questionable decisions, and occasionally comes off as an actual jerk, but a flawless person in his situation would simply be unbelievable. Pushing for that would have set the film well on the course for boredom. Because we know the character is capable of failure, we are far more likely to root for the occasional emotional successes.

The oddest part of the film is the occasional comedic framing of George Clooney’s persona, and his own insistence on occasionally playing an essentially unfunny scene for laughs. This isn’t actually bad, however. While it is occasionally slightly jarring – a particular moment of the top of Clooney’s head sticking out from behind a hedge in a faux-detective fashion – it also manages to contribute to the overall feeling on non-sentimentality.

On a final note, it was particularly nice to see Robert Forster in the film, and in one of the funniest scenes of the movie no less. His character of the father blaming, at least partially, his son-in-law for the death of his daughter, was not particularly likable, but like the rest of the movie, was honest.

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Ides of March

Director George Clooney’s latest foray into political cinema in Ides of March actually plays as if it was written by a speech writer. The language is concise, the message is clear. It isn’t necessarily the power that corrupts, but the compromises one has to make to put themselves in that position of power. George Clooney’s character is Mike Morris, a state Governor who is in the running to win the presidential primary for the Democrats’ candidacy. His compromise is embodied by Ryan Gosling, who plays Stephen Meyers, Morris’ deputy campaign manager. As the Ohio state primary unfolds, Stephen finds himself making a mistake in meeting, even once, with the manager of the opposing campaign. This acts as a catalyst for a series of events that end up wrecking the ideals of both men – the Governor, and Stephen, as both have to compromise to keep their head above water.

All of this is unfortunately dramatized, and thickened. A single mistake in the world of politics, apparently, means death. Which, may be true in cases – a single embarrassment can mean the death of one’s career in that world, and even so… The character’s reactions seem drastic.

The characters themselves often speak to one another as if they were embroiled in a public debate. It is difficult to decide whether this is a conscious choice on the part of the writers of the film (of which there are three). True, the characters are themselves practiced speech writers, they make their living that way. Perhaps the language would seep into their daily lives.

Yet, if this is a rhetorical strategy it is a flawed one. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Stephen’s boss, is ultimately given very little to do here, which is surprising. George Clooney is an actor himself, and it was difficult to understand why he gave this role to such a masterful actor. It isn’t that the part is small, it’s that it isn’t interesting, apart for a few fiery lines.

Paul Giamatti’s portrayal of Tom Duffy, the manager of the opposing campaign, was at least obviously unlikable enough to not suffer from this characterization. He is cynical and jaded, having clearly spent too much time on the campaign trail.

George Clooney’s Morris is almost always on, and therefore comes off almost as perfect as his public image makes him out to be. When Morris is making a speech, one is instantly inclined to believe him. Even as dirty secrets come out, one can’t help but believe he was simply being corrupted by the difficult choices he is forced to make, and that he really is the idealist he swears to be. Only, his ideals are now tied to people that oppose it at all costs.

Finally, we return to Stephen. Stephen has involved himself in a love affair with an intern, played by Evan Rachel Wood, but really is a very nice guy. He believes in his candidate. Only, when his candidate treats him, or the lovely intern, unfairly, he is out for blood. He drops very quickly the spiel about what is best for the country. It becomes obvious that what Stephen is after, is his piece of the pie. The difference between his appearance and demeanor in the opening shot, and the final, is stark. Obvious, even.

2011 is definitely going down as Ryan Gosling’s year – Crazy, Stupid, Love., Drive, and The Ides of March make him the face of the year. Which is well-deserved. He is a believable, likable, and clearly talented.

Ultimately, the message about the realities of the political world contributes nothing we didn’t already know. Which isn’t a bad thing, really. It’s just that when a film concentrates on a message rather than art, its message needs to be profound, rather than merely letting us know that the people we vote for may not be telling us the complete truth about their beliefs. Why is why the movie fails to even be topical during primary season – its message is so broad, it could apply to anything. Which almost feels like a compromise on the film’s part.