Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
Troubled Western 'Jane Got a Gun' Rescued as Relativity Files for Bankruptcy (Updated) Troubled Western 'Jane Got a Gun' Rescued as Relativity Files for Bankruptcy (Updated) 'The Witch' Won't Open Until 2016, But Its Sundance-Winning Director Has a New Film 'The Witch' Won't Open Until 2016, But Its Sundance-Winning Director Has a New Film Charles Aidikoff Screening Room Shutters: End of an Era for LA Critics? Charles Aidikoff Screening Room Shutters: End of an Era for LA Critics? How HBO's 'Ballers' Fails Sports Fans How HBO's 'Ballers' Fails Sports Fans Michael Moore Reveals Stealth NSA Project 'Where to Invade Next' on Periscope Michael Moore Reveals Stealth NSA Project 'Where to Invade Next' on Periscope Showtime Chief on David Lynch's 'Twin Peaks' Revival: "It's His Show" Showtime Chief on David Lynch's 'Twin Peaks' Revival: "It's His Show" Toronto Film Festival Lineup: What Did They Get? Toronto Film Festival Lineup: What Did They Get? Discover the Brothers Quay, Identical Twin Animators Who Inspired Christopher Nolan Discover the Brothers Quay, Identical Twin Animators Who Inspired Christopher Nolan Richard Linklater's Untitled New Film Pushed to 2016, Might Direct Jennifer Lawrence Movie Richard Linklater's Untitled New Film Pushed to 2016, Might Direct Jennifer Lawrence Movie Jill Soloway Says "There Is an All Out-Attack" on Female Filmmakers Jill Soloway Says "There Is an All Out-Attack" on Female Filmmakers 'Steve Jobs' Joins Fall Festival Contenders as NYFF Centerpiece Gala: What's Coming Up and What's Not (UPDATED) 'Steve Jobs' Joins Fall Festival Contenders as NYFF Centerpiece Gala: What's Coming Up and What's Not (UPDATED) Top 10 Takeaways: Holdover 'Ant-Man' Tops Blah Week, Summer Slot for 'Southpaw' Pays Off Top 10 Takeaways: Holdover 'Ant-Man' Tops Blah Week, Summer Slot for 'Southpaw' Pays Off Arthouse Audit: Is 'Phoenix' This Year's 'Ida'? 'Mr. Holmes' Stays Strong Arthouse Audit: Is 'Phoenix' This Year's 'Ida'? 'Mr. Holmes' Stays Strong Friday Box Office: Sandler's 'Pixels' Gets Mixed Response, 'Paper Towns,' 'Southpaw' Not Far Behind Friday Box Office: Sandler's 'Pixels' Gets Mixed Response, 'Paper Towns,' 'Southpaw' Not Far Behind Scott Foundas Explains Why He's Leaving Film Criticism--Again--for Amazon Studios Scott Foundas Explains Why He's Leaving Film Criticism--Again--for Amazon Studios Congrats to Monica Bellucci: She's Making History Congrats to Monica Bellucci: She's Making History Watch: The Secret Ingredient to David Lynch's Disorienting Cinema Watch: The Secret Ingredient to David Lynch's Disorienting Cinema First Look: 'No' Director Pablo Larraín Channels 'Neruda' with Gael García Bernal First Look: 'No' Director Pablo Larraín Channels 'Neruda' with Gael García Bernal Why Kevin Costner Paid for 'Black or White' (New Trailer, Sneak Preview Q & A) Why Kevin Costner Paid for 'Black or White' (New Trailer, Sneak Preview Q & A) Gabriel García Márquez and Akira Kurosawa Talk Film, Writing and 'Rhapsody in August' in 1991 Gabriel García Márquez and Akira Kurosawa Talk Film, Writing and 'Rhapsody in August' in 1991

Now and Then: Why The Descendants Should Win Best Picture

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! December 30, 2011 at 2:55PM

"The Descendants" starts slow, muddied by voiceover and unclear intentions. But it soon sneaks up on you, deepening — ripening, really — until it achieves something approaching wisdom.
2
"The Descendants."
"The Descendants."

"The Descendants" starts slow, muddied by voiceover and unclear intentions. But it soon sneaks up on you, deepening — ripening, really — until it achieves something approaching wisdom. Writer/director Alexander Payne made his name with "Election" (1999), a caustic, almost bloody comedy of bad intentions and narcissism, but he since seems to have mellowed. With "About Schmidt" (2002), "Sideways" (2004), and now "The Descendants," Payne's filmmaking is increasingly rough-hewn and messy, dispensing with the tidiness of a punch line in favor of humor that emerges in fits and starts, as though we're part of the conversation. In the frayed edges and missteps of Payne's new family drama there's undeniable warmth, not forced but earned — in short, a kind of understanding.

Starring George Clooney as Matt King, a father and land heir estranged from both family and history, "The Descendants" sets a desperate situation against Hawaii's idyllic backdrop, a sort of stand-in for all the other surfaces by which we hide our secrets. Such surfaces, it should be added, inevitably melt away: "Paradise," Matt tells us in that opening voiceover, "can go fuck itself." If further evidence were needed that Clooney is one of our most audacious actors, watch as he reveals the bad news to a gathering of family and friends, alternating between gasps of teary-eyed pain and his attempt to maintain a stiff upper lip. He's not just vulnerable. It's like he's been flayed open.  

The real accomplishment of "The Descendants," though, is to retain its loose, easy quality without making light of the tragedy at its heart. This delicate balance has become Payne's hallmark — his films from the past decade are run through with pain and disappointment, with missed opportunities and bad vibes, but they are never heavy with undeserved affect. Rather, "The Descendants" marks an understanding of how stories — histories, biographies, imaginative fictions — shape our families, ourselves. Whether an ancestral link dating back to 1860 or an extramarital affair in the now, what Matt tells himself, his daughters, and his cousins defines who he is. It explains why he's so desperate to know the full story. Without it, it seems, he'll cease to exist.   

More than "The Artist," the Oscar frontrunner, Payne's film — the only other legitimate contender — presents emotion as complicated, world-worn, human. Don't get me wrong; "The Artist" is a lovely little film. It's a nostalgic blast from the past and impeccably made, the very kind of perfect that "The Descendants" is not. But whereas "The Artist" is a slip of a film, a shiny bauble without much weight, "The Descendants" takes on the heft of life's messy actualities. Though my real favorite of the year, "The Tree of Life," has no chance of winning (if it even snags a nomination), it'd behoove the Academy to stand behind a film so fierce, and funny, and wise as "The Descendants." Compared to "The Artist," it's not the easy choice, but it's the right one.

This article is related to: Now and Then, George Clooney, Awards, Trailers, comedy, Drama


E-Mail Updates








Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.