Friday, October 11, 2013

Descendants Into Hell

I used to think that the sound produced in kicking a dying animal was a harsh and heart-wrenching whimper, the pain of which only increases with each successive blow. Then I saw The Descendants, a made-for-Oscar* picture that delights not merely in kicking dying animals but in kicking a dying audience relentlessly for two hours of Hawaiian drama drenched in sorrow and intense emotional conflict.  Just when the viewer thinks that the film’s state of affairs can’t get much worse, writer and director Alexander Payne delivers another poisonous draught of misery to the lives of his characters, setting them free to rip each other apart even as the impending death of a family member hews away at their consciences.  Strangely, the result of this boldly depressing narrative is not a sadistic and one-dimensional melodrama that obsesses over human death but a thoughtful and understated examination of several outwardly stereotypical characters and the relationships that bind them.  The Descendants executed a remarkable achievement by breaking almost every cinematic rule concerning a story of this subject matter, most notably the one that Thou Shalt Not Have An Unhappy Beginning, Climax, and Ending All In One, and still managing to attract a flurry of awards and nominations, rightly so.

One of the few funny parts in the movie.

Matt King is a lawyer living in Oahu who already has enough problems, being buried in paperwork because of an expiring land trust in Kauai, when his wife Elizabeth lands in a permanent coma following a boat accident.  “My friends on the mainland think that just because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise,” he narrates.  “Paradise can go (do something to) itself.”  Compelled by circumstance to take care of his long neglected daughters Scottie, a 10-year-old up-and-coming bad girl, and Alexandra, a teenage, fully-grown bad girl whose attendance at an expensive private school apparently hasn’t done much good, Matt is thrust unprepared into an alien land of active fatherhood which only grows more trying and complicated when his firstborn shares her revelation that his wife was having an affair with another man.  As Elizabeth lies wasting away in the hospital, her confused and vengeful husband forsakes his other duties to hunt down and confront the coward who partook in this heinous breach of trust, scouring Hawaii and dragging along his two descendants as well as Alex’s idiotic surfer dude of a boyfriend turned adopted brother, Sid, who nevertheless insists:

“I’m not that bad.  I’m smart.”
“You are about a hundred miles from smart.”

The final scenes, needless to say, spare to no one a Happily Ever After, and thus they initially seem abrupt and inconclusive; however, this has less to do with the movie’s own failings than with Hollywood’s great success at inuring viewers to perpetually expect uplifting conclusions which overlook the grimmer aspects of real life.

The Descendants, as a whole, is fixated on this thing called real life and draws its strength by communicating in a pure and unglamorous tone all the intricate tragedies that come with it.  None of the characters are perfect and everyone tends to clasp hatred before humbling themselves enough to forgive their enemies, the difficulty but necessity of which is one of the movie’s overarching themes.  The screenwriting is intelligent and original, never succumbing to clichés, and the acting is superb on all fronts.  As a struggling father and angry husband who was constantly occupied with business before his world dissolved into chaos, George Clooney brings a range of subtlety to a role that’s been explored numerous times, and Shailene Woodley, transitioning smoothly out of a career that had formerly spanned nothing besides a stupid TV bullsitcom, likewise instills depth and complexity in Alex where another actress might have reduced her to just another one-dimensional, foul-mouthed, and completely unlikeable teenager.  In all sincerity, I would earnestly be anticipating her starring performance next year in the movie adaptation of a post-apocalyptic, vaguely dystopian, young-adult novel with a kick-butt female protagonist called Divergent, if only it wasn’t based on a post-apocalyptic, vaguely dystopian, young-adult novel with a kick-butt female protagonist.  Nick Krause deserves a huge shout-out as a young man who masks his own personal suffering and intentions behind a veil of sloth and stupidity, Robert Forster wins a sizeble acknowledgment in the part of Matt’s bitter and grief-stricken father-in-law, and just about the whole cast merits an ample recognition for its talent.**  All the other aspects of the film’s production are exemplary, from the relaxed and methodical pacing by the editors, who naturally splice Hawaiian music into transitory sequences but wisely abstain from using it manipulate the audience’s mood in scenes with dialogue, to the spectacular Kauaian set and art design by God, which compares in beauty to anything we’ve seen in big-budget blockbusters like Jurassic Park.  Oh, wait… Still, the film is overwhelmingly somber for something billed as a comedy-drama, and while witty humor shines through briefly in scenes with the unintentionally hilarious Sid, The Descendants is definitely not in the same vein as The Blind Side or The Impossible, which aimed solely to lift audiences up rather than wearing them down (although the latter only lifts people after wearing them down to the point of exhaustion).  This is not a critique of the story itself, as I myself would argue that movies written to inspire thought are generally higher than those written simply to entertain, but it’s certainly a telling evaluation of the story’s limited appeal.

In spite of all its strengths, The Descendants does have a fair share of flaws that detract from its narrative’s impact.  Alexandra swears… a Lot, more than is necessary to establish that she’s a rebellious, ill-raised, and mourning teenager.  I had gathered as much by about the fifth F-bomb, and everything after that felt like either an attempt to shock the audience, in which case there are more positive ways to raise publicity, or to “show how teenagers really talk”, in which case there are more clever ways to depict realistic dialogue that don’t involve excessive profanity.  Call me a sexist if you like to entertain yourself with false delusions of moral superiority and political enlightenment, but I also contend that there are some things men can reasonably do in movies, like cursing profusely, getting stoned, and gratuitously beating each other up, which women as the fairer sex should not stoop to doing even in a fictional setting.  This philosophy explains why I don’t jump for joy in unison with mainstream, equality-at-all-costs movie critics when studios announce, say, Bridesmaids or The Heat, both of which prided themselves on giving leading actresses a license to do all kinds of disgusting and demeaning things which used to be reserved for their male counterparts in the industry, and it also informs why I despair somewhat to see a pretty young face like Woodley try to draw attention by spewing filth in contexts that don’t really develop her character or advance the plot.  Another possible weakness with the film is that we see nothing of the parents’ relationship prior to the crash, perhaps because Matt hints that such a relationship never fully existed due to his business engagements and personal withdrawal, or perhaps because the writers believed it wouldn’t mesh effectively with the rest of the story.  Either way, I felt that I was missing the complete impact of the loss that Matt and his family endure, as though I was glimpsing but a shadow of the sadness that afflicted them.  I could understand their deprivation on a distanced, observational level but not on a really personal one.  Nevertheless, I would much prefer a fairly detached and unassuming drama like this over a weepy and nauseatingly sentimental tearjerker that ignores meaningful storytelling to elicit a certain response from viewers.

As one might expect from any Oscar-considered work, The Descendants’ critical hype drastically overshadows its actual quality, but it possesses a richness of character development and subtlety of writing that’s rarely encountered in the modern day.  A wise and melancholy portrayal of real-world struggles, it makes no attempt to cleanly resolve the mess that faces its subjects, and is all the more profound for that reason.

Grade rating: B+

* Yes, I am aware that I prematurely ridiculed this movie, among other things, at length after the Oscars aired in 2012.  Given the opportunity to rewrite that blog post, I would probably ridicule it again, just for the ironic fact that Clooney’s character says he thinks, “You give them just enough to do something, but not enough to do nothing,” when Clooney’s actual creed is more like, “Give them just enough to do nothing, and give them much more on top of that.”
** Those are all Tim Conway Jr. Show sound bites.
*** The post title is a punny allusion to something you’ve probably never heard of unless you’re Mr. Perry.

One would think that casting such comedic legends as Jack Black of Nacho Libre and Kung Fu Panda, Steve Martin of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Three Amigos, and Owen Wilson of Weddings Crashers and The Google Movie (OK, that last one was a joke) in the same film as a trio of extremely dorky nature nuts would be a recipe for uproarious laughter; the main reason why The Big Year never delivers such comedy is that it takes so analytical and humorless a perspective on its characters’ ludicrous hobby.  Like director David Frankel’s and Wilson’s last joint venture, Marley & Me, The Big Year was billed as a comedy but occupies a nebulous space between the really funny and the really serious, never settling comfortably on a single tone.  That doesn’t make it a bad movie – after all, John Carter was advertised as mindnumbing, CG-intensive crap, though it actually had a fairly substantive story beneath its visual flair – but The Big Year is certainly an unexpected journey given the background of its stars.

The movie revolves around the exploits and ambitions of three avid birdwatchers, or birders as they prefer to be titled, competing to witness as many North American avians as possible in a single year, i.e. a Big Year.  Jack Black’s Brad Harris, whose voiceover unnecessarily runs throughout the movie, never clearly defines the distinction between doing said Big Year and doing this brand of extreme birdwatching without engaging in a Big Year, but the revelation that a fellow birder is going for a Big Year almost always yields strife and contention in the birding community.  Such is the case with Brad and Stu, a business executive nearing retirement who aspires, like his younger competitor, to unseat the national Big Year record-holder, Kenny Bostick.  “It’s Hitchcockian stuff.”  When the champion starts to fear that these two up-and-comers might seize his hard-earned crown as the world’s best birder, he ups his game considerably and travels all over the continent to glimpse the rarest of species, all but abandoning his wife at home in an effort to best his own record and retain his prestige.  Stu, for his part, remains happily married and grandfather to a newly born grandson, while Brad is recovering from a divorce that stemmed partly from his obsession with birding.  A modern dramedy like this would be neither complete nor reasonably marketable without a romantic interest, so master birdess Ellie fills the void handsomely – or beautifully, because girls aren’t handsome – and gives Brad something to think about besides the most ideal region to visit next on his literal goose chase across the country.  As the Big Years of these three competitive adventurers draw to a close, the prizes they once sought so ardently grow to be less and less attractive; their experiences mold them into better and wiser men, if not always happier ones.

The Big Year could have been much funnier had it spared more pains to mocking its relatively banal subject matter rather than to expounding it for the audience’s education, but it still works as a tried and true commentary on the things that really matter in life.  The movie essentially has two morals woven throughout the narrative: “severely indebting yourself and inconveniencing all your family members is alright so long as you’re following your heart/making your dreams come true”, and “the greatest trophies one can hope to win consist not of material possessions or prestige but of the love one shares with friends”.  The first is obviously BS, and the 2nd is a cliché, but in the era of Facebook, Twitter, and the media-sponsored clamor for fame at any conceivable cost, The Big Year resonates with an important reminder that there are better ways to dispose of one’s life than endlessly chasing after renown.   Such pursuits are vain and doomed to failure, their products buried in time with those men who earned them, according to the observation of Percy Shelley: “Look on my works, ye mighty and despair! Nothing besides remains.  Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
the lone and level sands stretch far away.”

One can only wish that this movie was as poetic as Ozymandias.  The Big Year doesn’t do anything remotely original in terms of storytelling, its normally funny cast flounders without anything funny to say, and the $40 million some idiotic ex-producer granted to this box-office dud appears to have been squandered on some of the worst effects-generated critters I’ve seen outside of Terra Nova.  Still, ridiculous-looking and expensive birds aside, this film has a long way to go before it reaches the depravity of Terra Nova.  “How many dinos have you sighted so far this episode?”  “I saw a CGI fish, a giant dragonfly, and a triceratops egg – does that count?”  “Wow. I saw a poisonous spider and a statist utopian village powered entirely by the clean energy of a single windmill, but nothing else.  You must be doing a Big Series!”  “I wish.”  

I’m done making fun of Terra Nova on The Files now.

Grade rating: B-

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