Sideways is a perfect film. The more you watch it the more of itself it reveals. It is a story of a greatly flawed man who clatters selfishly forward — his book, his breakup, his misery. If he is given any redemption by the film’s end it’s because he comes to terms with being an asshole. But The Descendants is about more than one’s own personal journey of self-discovery; it is about selflessness, and how most of us are really here not to polish our own knobs 24/7 but to look out for others, especially those we’re responsible for, those we’re leaving behind.
I loved this film.
One must be cautious this time of year not to spill over with enthusiasm only to see a truly wonderful film such as this deflate during awards season for every reason except the only right one — that it isn’t good enough. It’s plenty good enough. But that might not stop people from wanting to hate it (in the end, we’re fairly petty creatures, truth be told). Although it’s positioned as a major Oscar contender, and from the looks of it, it should meet those expectations, it is a movie that can thankfully transcend the need for validation from those 6,000 voting members.
The Descendants is infused with love — love and all of the grotesque and beautiful emotions it draws out of us. It is both a declaration of maturity by its star, George Clooney, who has never been this vulnerable and raw, and in its director who has likewise hidden behind the much easier mask of cynicism. This evolution, as Alexander Payne said in the Q&A after the film, was no doubt brought about by the four or five years Payne stopped making films, got divorced, and had surgery. The film is surprising in how little it resembles the director’s other works except in the knack he has with actors and comic timing.
The sentimentality in it is disarming at times because it seems to come out of nowhere and lacks any chicken exit: some things are just too sad to make jokes about. I so admire Payne and Clooney for diving right into that inescapable place of despair when someone close to us is dying. How much easier it would have been for both of them to shy away from the more torturous moments. Instead, they seem to want to find the truth of this story, of these characters.
I’m purposefully staying away from plot because what’s the point of ruining it for you? Standout performances, as you no doubt already read at various sites, include Shailene Woodley, probably headed for a supporting nod (or at least she has a really good shot at one) as Clooney’s older foul-mouthed daughter. Strong, disarming, beautiful – she nails the tougher emotional scenes and provides much of the film’s heart. Robert Forster shines in a much smaller part, as does Nick Krause as the scene-stealing Sid.
But since the word Oscar is going to be hurled around now with wild abandon let’s talk Oscar for a minute. In every way The Descendants feels like a strong contender for a variety of reasons, the least of which Clooney in this part, has perhaps finally cashed the check on his promise as a really formidable leading actor. We’ve seen him gain weight, weird out, ugly up but we’ve never really seen him stripped bare this way. To that end, Clooney must now be considered the frontrunner in the Best Actor category. He’s going to get some competition from Leonardo DiCaprio, among others, but for now there isn’t a better performance I can think of.
There is no reason to think it won’t do Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Screenplay, Editing. If it does what Sideways did it will win all of the critics awards (not quite at Social Network’s level but pretty close) but lose the Oscar to something more
British sentimental. Here’s the catch, though: The Descendants IS a weepy. Not only was my face swollen and puffy from crying but so were all of the other people in the audience. It absolutely delivers on the kind of sentimentalism that the Academy goes for, unlike Sideways and other Payne films. But as with everything joyous and disappointing about the Oscar race, it could go either way.
Some warn about the charm of Telluride and its ability to make you think you’ve just seen a better movie than you have, particularly with George Clooney showing up, dripping with charm, and seducing you into liking his film. And it’s true – riding up in the gondola amid flickers of sunlight, sitting in a comfortable theater, seeing a movie first can mess with your head. But The Descendants has much more going for it than momentary seduction. Payne’s reaching for something here and as with any reach it either misses or it hits. When truths are exposed this way, there is no way it misses.