Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Review: The Descendants

The Descendants
Dir. Alexander Payne
Year: 2011
Aus Rating: M15+
Running Time: 115mins

I don’t think co-writer/director Alexander Payne always had disdain for women. Citizen Ruth and Election didn’t exactly have lovable women at their core, but they were well-rounded, flawed, complex women who were doing what they felt they had to do to survive. In those intervening years – he also directed About Schmidt and won an Oscar for Sideways – something must have happened (perhaps his divorce?) because The Descendants is an exercise in why women are such horrible, despicable shrews. When this film isn’t demonising its female characters for daring to be unhappy in their marriage, it’s condescending them for showing too much emotion and even berating them for drinking alcohol. By the time the film’s conclusion rolls about and the rightful masculine presence has been reinstated on this broken family, The Descendants has long – ahem – descended into an irredeemably dire affair.

Read the rest at Trespass Magazine

So, basically, I didn't like it. I'm truly flabbergasted that it has trailed such a blaze throughout the US awards season. Or, actually, maybe I'm not all that flabbergasted because The Descendants fits very comfortably into that safe territory of American "indies" that people seem to wet themselves over. It's easily comparable to titles like Little Miss Sunshine and Juno in the way it juggles drama and comedy and can make people feel all warm and cuddly by knowing they're supporting "arthouse cinema", but unlike those films it's actually really, really bad. I didn't have enough words to really discuss some of the other troubling aspects of the film - the weak as piss character development that sees Shailene Woodley's daughter character have a cry in the pool and instantly become daddy's BFF, or the weird way Clooney's character takes his 10-year-old daughter away from her mother who has had her life support turned off and is about to die! - but I think I was able to demonstrate my major qualms with Payne's film.

As for the awards? Well, I don't think it has any right being in the discussion for best picture, director (what whitewashed direction Payne provides!) and screenplay. Clooney is Clooney and while his narration is toxic, he does at least try to enliven the proceedings with a roster of "wacky" faces. Shailene Woodley, looking like a definite possibility for Best Supporting Actress is... well, I can see why because she's quite good and is actually able to forge through with some peaks and valleys, but as the eloquent Nick Davis recently opined - where, I unfortunately cannot remember - if Academy voters cannot find five better, further reaching supporting female performances from 2011 then they simply are not looking hard enough. She's a gorgeous and talented young actress, so it would be a shame to see her nominated for a role that is so uninterested with itself. The screenplay does nothing for Woodley, who plays the rebellious daughter who got sent away to a reform school. In the grand scheme of things she seems rather docile as teenagers go. Some curse words don't make angst. Ah well. I guess all I can hope for is an Up in the Air style across-the-board loss ratio by the time Oscar statues are handed out in late February. Oscar loves his women, so why embrace a film that hates them?


Dixie said...

I have to disagree with you on a couple of points. One is NOT, however, the wonderment at the general critical praise for the movie. It was just average. Without the pedigree of the director, I doubt it would be on many Top 10 lists. But I don't think the movie hates women.
It's unfair to imply Payne does. It's even less fair to make those assumptions based on the fact that he, like millions of other people (including other writer/directors,) got a divorce. Like... 6 years ago?
Elizabeth isn't demonized "for daring to be in an unhappy marriage." For one thing, she wasn't just in an unhappy marriage. She had an affair. She betrayed her husband and family.
Does the fact that Elizabeth is in a coma mean that she is instantly absolved of her selfish, hurtful transgression? Because she cannot respond, should Matt not be allowed to be angry with her, or vent his frustration to her? That anyone would consider adultery an acceptable side effect of being "unhappy" in a marriage is unsettling to me. Much more unsettling than any female character portrayal in the film.
Matt has every right to be upset with Elizabeth, as does Alex, as does Julie. And yet, by the end of the movie, they're all able to forgive Elizabeth. Also, despite how Elizabeth's dad feels about the kind of husband Matt has been, claiming his daughter to have been a faithful wife, neither Matt nor Alex tell him the truth about his daughter. I think if the movie wanted to demonize Elizabeth and her decisions, she would have been fully exposed as an adulteress.
I also quibble with the accusation of condescention in relation to the scene as the end with Matt, Elizabeth and Julie. That Matt stepped in when things were going in a negative direction is, I think, further proof that Elizabeth was not demonized. Despite the betrayal, her husband still loved her enough to protect her and stop someone from saying such harsh words to her as she lay dying.
Also, the evolution of the Alex character isn't quite as quick as you've described. After the crying in the pool, there is the scene where she reveals her mother's affair to Matt. Between that and the time the two spend together with Elizabeth's parents, there's enough time for the development of the "BFF" thing.
And I don't think it was wrong for Matt to take Scottie out of the hospital. Based on her behaviors, she was obviously having enough trouble dealing with what was happening to her mother without having to continually sit around a hospital room and watch Elizabeth die. It was always Matt's goal to keep Scottie distracted, hence all the ice cream. Keep in mind, too, 10 year olds are so cognitively different than adults.
So, while I defintely think this was by no means a great movie, I honestly can't relate to the issues you have with it. There were far more offensive female characters in other films in 2011, like Sucker Punch or the Twilight saga.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

An uneven, tone-deaf quagmire that left me blind with rage while watching. Made all the more frustrating when my best friend turned to me at the credits and said, "I think that's my favorite film of the year." GAH! While I *do* like the scene where he "hurls abuse at his comatose wife" (misogyny? no, more like a betrayed spouse with no other outlet), so many other moments were false, false, false. I didn't even like Robert Forster's performance, dependent as it was on clunky, expository dialogue ("This is how I feel about you. This is how disappointed I am. Blah Blah Blah"), before it
's finally revealed to be just a contrivance to give the daughter a "rah, rah, dad!" moment. And what was the deal with the daughter's guy friend? WHY WAS HE THERE?

Clearly, I'm with you on this one.

Kennings said...

Nice review! I really thought that this was a great film. George Clooney, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller were simply a pure delight to watch as they provided an interesting critique of the modern American family. The Hawaiian setting was great as well.

Check out mine if you get the chance. http://kenningskennings.blogspot.com/2011/12/descendants.html

Glenn Dunks said...

Dixie, but don't you think there's a reason why she had an affair? It's briefly mentioned whenever the Robert Forster character shows up, but she seemed like a pretty absent father (from his own admission - he's the "back-up parent") and husband. Being in a coma doesn't absolve her of anything, but I found it thoroughly unfair to the wife to have Clooney shout abuse at her with no way for her to reply. Matt doesn't seem to take any responsibility for his failing marriage and unruly children (which, really, in the grand scheme of things were fairly pleasant). I can't really explain it any more than I have. I found it incredibly unpleasant to sit through.

As for "Sucker Punch", well, yes, that was also deeply troubling portrayals of women. And men. And probably animals, too, if there were any. I never saw "Twilight".

Dixie said...

Glenn, firstly, I should have replied a long time ago, but my ipad wouldn't let me. (What's up with that?) But more importantly, in response to your query "don't you think there's a reason why she had an affair?", my answer is no. There is NEVER a reason to have an affair. I don't care if your spouse ignores you from the moment you say "I do." - That's what divorce is for. Seriously. I've heard all the excuses, and what the cheater is really trying to excuse is their own lazy, selfish choice to step outside their relationship rather than have the courage to either first try to fix it or to simply end it.
And I understand where you're coming from, with your opinion on Matt's outburst to Elizabeth. But while it seems unfair to you that she cannot respond, consider that she likely can't hear him anyway. And while Matt might not take any responsibility for his failed marriage, neither did (or will) Elizabeth. It shouldn't all rest on Matt's shoulders, just because he's the surviving spouse who was perhaps too absent.