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Quality holiday fare, but a step down for Alexander Payne

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, December 16, 2011 7:47 am

I had promised reviews of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “The Sitter” this week, but those plans were altered by the fact that my online source for such matters had listed an incorrect wide release date for the former, and the nation’s critics and moviegoing public have convinced me that I should skip the latter. So we are left with “The Descendants,” now playing in general release after generating incredible word of mouth during its run on the art-house circuit. I found it to be consistently engaging yet slightly disappointing given the buzz, but your mileage may vary.

Next week for sure: “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” and “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” which has piqued my interest after receiving favorable early reviews from others who, like me, found the first installment lacking. After that, I’m confident I’ll have my face melted off by the awe-inspiring filmmaking prowess of David Fincher and his “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” So stay tuned.

As of this writing, “The Descendants” is dominating the earliest year-end critics’ awards and top 10 lists. Like Alexander Payne’s last feature “Sideways” in 2004, it has immediately situated itself as the critical darling to beat. But, as with “Sideways,” I’m completely stymied by the level of passionate support the film has been receiving. Perhaps the fact that I saw it at the height of its buzz is contributing to my relative ambivalence toward the film (I’m a moviegoer like any other and am therefore vulnerable to expectations, which is why I’ve always resisted the label of “impartial critic”), but I honestly wasn’t expecting a transcendent cinematic experience that left my soul transformed.

I would have settled for something on the level of Payne’s previous efforts, like “Election,” “About Schmidt” or even “Sideways” — wonderful, carefully observed, bitingly funny character-driven pieces that go unexpected places. “The Descendants,” by contrast, manages to be simultaneously predictable and inexplicable in its resolutions to the characters’ central conflicts. The film is always at least interesting, and the characters believable and sympathetic, but the story in which they’re involved often seems aimless, in search of some profound, unifying message that simply isn’t there.

The film’s premise is intriguing, and rife with potential to explore moral complexities. George Clooney stars as Matt King, a workaholic attorney and father of two girls, whose wife is injured in a boat race and rendered comatose. As Mike, a self-professed “backup parent,” is faced with the prospect of caring for his daughters alone, he is further disturbed by the revelation that his wife had been carrying on an affair in the months before her accident. Burdened by this knowledge, he sets out along with his oldest daughter (Shailene Woodley) and her stoner boyfriend (Nick Krause) to find and confront the man who was sleeping with his wife. In the midst of all this drama is a subplot involving Matt’s control over a pending land sale (he’s a direct descendant of King Kamehameha, and holds sway over the family trust that includes 25,000 acres of pristine Hawaiian land), and its troubling connections to the central conflict.

The main narrative thread involving Matt’s reaction to his wife’s adultery is handled well enough, I suppose, offering some keen emotion insights without ever delivering the true catharsis promised by the dramatic weight of the film’s premise. Far too much time, however, is devoted to the secondary story involving the land deal. As far as I can discern it serves no purpose in either a narrative or thematic sense, other than as a plot device to broker a believable meeting between Matt and the mystery man — a meeting that could have easily been set up via another plot device that didn’t necessitate 30 minutes of exposition. In the end I suppose Payne meant for there to be some meaningful metaphorical connection between these two story threads (the film, after all, is called “The Descendants,” referring presumably to Matt’s daughters as well as Matt and his extended family), but for the life of me I can’t figure out what it’s supposed to be.

Ultimately, this is best approached as an actors’ showcase. The cast is solid from top to bottom, with Clooney turning in another standout performance as a workaholic adrift in existential crisis (see: last year’s strong but also over-rated “Up in the Air”). He will be nominated for an Oscar for his work here, and is my early pick to win if for no other reason than his final scene with his comatose wife, which recalls Marlon Brando’s legendary work in “Last Tango in Paris.” The surprise here, though, is Woodley, the star of TV’s “The Secret Life of an American Teenager.” As eldest daughter Alexandra, she gives us a very “lived-in” portrayal of a young girl torn between her love for her mother and the anger and disgust she feels towards her mother’s betrayal. She is now officially on my “one to watch” list, and is also guaranteed to be remembered come Oscar time.

In fact, the film is a contender to lead the Oscar pack, which may say something about that quality of Hollywood’s output in 2011. But despite my misgivings, the fact remains that “The Descendants” is one of the only, and surely one of the best, adult-oriented films showing in general release over the holidays. And I’ll take what I can get.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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