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Bar an offhand tweet-review that I’d now downgrade about two notches, I’ve been quiet on Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” since seeing it at the London Film Festival last month, and remained so when it hit US screens last week to an inevitable shower of critical applause – with many returning the film to its pre-Toronto position as the film to beat for the Oscar.
I’m not sure why I’ve felt so disinclined to write about it, besides the fact that—contrary to what many may believe about film critics—it’s not a lot of fun to pick away at films beloved by the majority. At first I thought “The Descendants,” a glibly engineered dramedy of Grief and Reconciliation and other capital-letter emotional states, simply wasn’t interesting enough to discuss at any great length, its virtues and offenses both too minor to get worked up about: competent films this bland and condescending get a free pass all the time from critics and audiences, so why single this one out for censure just because it has a bit of Oscar buzz?
Yet the longer I thought about Payne’s latest—and think about it I did, which is a credit either to the film itself or the mind-narrowing properties of awards season—the deeper my problems with it ran. The Oscar buzz, meanwhile, grew to seem less like an irrelevant symptom of its success, and more like an unhappy consequence of the highly selective emotional manipulation that calculatedly humanistic filmmaking like “The Descendants” uses to court mainstream respectability.
On the face of things, I want to be excited that a contemporary, character-based domestic drama featuring no Important Historical Figures or Big Issues Of Our Time writ large is among the leading contenders for Oscar glory: the everyday is a period that tends to get regrettably short shrift from Academy voters. And yet I feel cheated that the film potentially carrying this modest torch all the way to the podium is not just self-defeatingly self-congratulatory about its laughter-through-the-tears strength of feeling, but one that preaches empathy more than it practices the same.
That’s a harsh charge, I realize, and one that could be made rather absently in retrospect, but there’s a curiously judgmental streak in the film’s delineation of a family in crisis that nagged at me from the opening beats, even as I was admiring smaller details of its construction. “The Descendants” is the story of a quietly severed marriage that doesn’t just omit one partner’s perspective via the time-honored narrative standby of a terminal coma, but actively uses that silence against them: we’re invited to share in the sense of numb betrayal felt by a passive husband (George Clooney) upon learning of his wife’s infidelities, without having any access to her experience, any honest sense of why she chose to stray.
That’s acceptable if you choose to accept the film as a one-character psychological study—how many people do respond to cuckolding with even-handed diplomacy, after all?—even if an uncomfortable climactic scene of Clooney hurling verbal abuse at his wife’s inactive body built more emotional walls for me than it broke down. Things gets more problematic, however, when the couples’ older daughter (Shailene Woodley) is repeatedly likened to her mother in her flaws, rather censoriously regarded by the film even if they seemingly amount to little more than college-age recklessness and self-assertion: the definition of a character purely by others’ perceptions of her can be a fascinating dramatic device, but less so when all said perceptions are on the disapproving side.
If, at this point, “The Descendants” appears to be sliding dangerously into misogyny, that’s tempered only by its equally dismissive treatment of Hawaiian locals, real estate agents (an ever-reliable punching-bag) and Clooney’s oafish, less educated extended family – the hub of a protracted and wholly predictable land-ownership subplot that serves little purpose but the further ennobling of an otherwise less-than-commendable Ordinary Joe protagonist. (Family history is more important than family money, which is easier to say when you’re as evidently well-off as this one guy.) For all its sunsplashed optimism and gestures of ethnic solidarity, I’m not convinced this is a film that likes people very much at all.
I didn’t mean for this column to turn into a laundry list of complaints against an ostensible frontrunner, but rather to hold it up as merely one example of the simplified, often neatly redemptive, patterns of behavior the Academy sometimes likes supposedly gentle human drama to fall into: films that massage our social blind spots rather than challenging them.
That applies to good Oscar winners as well as bad: “American Beauty” is excitingly current formal cinema that felt like something of a breakthrough when it scooped the top prizes in the 1999 race after a decade dominated by stately period fare, but it did so via some rigidly diagrammatic misanthropy, Alan Ball’s script drawing thick, unforgiving chalk lines of prejudice and materialism between its heightened characters.
Similarly unsubtle but vastly less rewarding, “Crash” assembled a mosaic of contemporary American racial relations only by blocking vast swathes of minority perspective from its narrative flow; the result was neat enough to tickle voters’ consciences without requiring a major reassessment of values. That the Academy can jive with “American Beauty” and not “Magnolia,” “Crash” and not “Do the Right Thing” suggests they’re fondest of the ‘small’ films that bite off less than they can chew.
It was the year of “American Beauty,” of course, that Alexander Payne first entered the Academy’s radar: he deservedly received a lone writing nomination for “Election,” a scabrously witty but unexpectedly democratic satire of high politics that remains the high-water mark of his career: from where I’m standing, each Payne film since then (a bleak, bristly old-age ennui study in “About Schmidt”; a pleasingly woozy but insular ode to the pleasures of drinking and companionship in “Sideways,” now “The Descendants”) has been a little less provocative than the last, a little more pat in its packaging of human emotion and, one presumes not coincidentally, a little more successful through awards season, a pattern his latest looks certain to continue.
My updated predictions for this week are here. In case you missed the announcement on Monday, however, I am also now managing half the categories on the official sidebar predictions -- check out The Contenders for more details.
For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.
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