Tim Grierson and Will Leitch will be writing regularly on Gawker and Deadspin about movies, starting this week. Today and tomorrow, we're going to shower love on our favorite films that are up for Best Picture. First up, why we'd be happy if The Descendants won the Oscar. Follow Grierson & Leitch on Twitter for more business.
It seems like ages ago now, but at one point people actually thought The Descendants had a chance to take home the Academy Award. In late October, handicappers figured it was going to be a race to the finish between director Alexander Payne's George Clooney drama and The Artist. That didn't happen: Soon after, The Artist started grabbing critics' prizes and racking up tons of guild nominations, and the rest of the contenders were left in the dust. It's gotten so bad for The Descendants that Clooney, who's as close to Academy royalty as we have, is probably going to lose Best Actor to someone most of the industry hadn't heard of 12 months ago.
In a way, The Descendants' disappearance from the Oscar conversation is fitting. Although it's a tearjerker with universal themes about family and forgiveness, The Descendants just doesn't feel like your typical Best Picture winner. It's not inspirational. It's not about a man overcoming great obstacles. It's not an epic. It's just a small little film about a lazy husband and father who finally pulls himself together to try to be a better human being. This is one of the reasons why I like the film so much. Where so many other Oscar wannabes announce their self-importance, The Descendants is a gentle, well-observed gem that calmly and patiently wins you over.
Clooney plays Matt King, a successful lawyer who's an otherwise unremarkable person living in Hawaii with his two daughters and wife. He narrates the early stretches of the film, and even his voiceover seems unimpressive: He explains his life in ways that make it pretty clear that he's been sleepwalking through most of it. But then his wife (Patricia Hastie) ends up in a coma and Matt has to gather family and friends to let them know that her condition is fatal. Also, he has to track down the man (Matthew Lillard) with whom she's been having a secret affair.
It's not a particularly novel concept—uncommunicative, affluent white guy battles midlife crisis—but The Descendants makes it feel fresh thanks to Payne's quiet, affectionate portrait of Matt and his two nicely nuanced daughters, played by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller. Nothing really astonishing happens during Matt's quest to find his wife's lover, but Payne's confident manner suggests that nothing astonishing is supposed to happen. No, we're just meant to watch as regular people grapple with the anger and grief that visits everyone eventually. The Descendants does the impressive trick of making everyday life suddenly seem pretty extraordinary, finding room to render everyone in its cast of characters (including an Alzheimer's-afflicted mother-in-law, the older daughter's obnoxious friend, and the lover's unsuspecting wife) as people worthy of respect and compassion.
Playing sad-eyed, middle-aged guys has become Clooney's specialty, but his work in The Descendants is special because there's so little of the faded swagger he usually brings to roles like this. Matt is a well-meaning bore, and Clooney does a particularly good job of making the man's inner life a complete mystery. This is not a character who can access emotions or even articulate them, and so his journey is all the more terrifying for him because it's very much out of his comfort zone. And Clooney never winks at the audience; he just digs deep into this guy, refusing to make him lovable or compelling. Of course, that makes Matt's slow realization of what his life has become all the more heartbreaking. (Another sign of how good Clooney is in the film: Both times I've seen it, I haven't been sure what exactly makes him do what he ultimately chooses to do with his family's land—and yet I don't care. As with real people, there are some things about Matt we never quite understand.)
But Clooney's terrific performance is guided and shaped by his director. There are those (me included) that miss the sharp, sardonic Payne of Election. But in moving away from satire to a sweeter, more humanistic perspective, he hasn't gone soft. Instead, with The Descendants he's continuing to show he's one of our best filmmakers at understanding how human beings tick. Whether in comedy or drama, that's a rare gift—even if it gets overlooked by Oscar voters.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.