For Your Consideration: The Descendants Is The Best Picture That's Hollywood Drama At Its Best

By Katey Rich 2012-02-24 15:31:33discussion comments
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Every weekday from now until the Oscar ceremony we'll be running a For Your Consideration piece on behalf of every Best Picture nominee, arguing why it deserves its nomination or even a win, arguing why it's important, or even pointing out why it doesn't belong at the Oscars at all. Here is Katey with a personal argument on behalf of The Descendants.


"Paradise can go fuck itself." That's the standout line from the opening of The Descendants, in which George Clooney's Matt King speaks directly to the audience in voiceover and introduces us to a man who, while wealthy and privileged and living in beautiful Hawaii, has plenty of reason to be fed up with his native land. The opening of the film feels pure Alexander Payne, both for the voiceover and the wry, caustic attitude it brings, immediately flinging us into a Hawaii that's more textured and rougher than the postcards we know. As he did for Nebraska and the Napa Valley, Payne is visiting a real American place and showing us the real Americans who live there-- who hurt each other and make mistakes, and may drive the audience crazy in the process.

The voiceover dies down early in the film, but the dark attitude takes a little longer-- and when it does, it reveals The Descendants as the warm, tricky and emotionally rewarding drama that's easily deserving of Best Picture. In a year when so many of the films nominated by the Academy hold up the past as either a brighter, better time or the bar with which to measure ourselves, The Descendants lives firmly in the modern day, burrowing into this very specific part of Hawaiian life and making every part of it feel authentic and moving. As literally the only Best Picture nominee set in the present, The Descendants doesn't go for grand historical resonance or even a particular theme; it tells its small story and tells it well, a novel effortlessly woven into cinema and a director known for being harsh softening just enough into a film that deserves it.

The Kaui Hart Hemmings novel that Payne and his co-writers adapted for The Descendants was told from the point of view of the daughter, Alexandra; it might be eye-rollingly obvious to see three middle-aged men shift perspective to the father character, but Payne works hard to make sure Alex's story, and that of her sister and many other characters, stays intact. When we see young Scottie throw a chair into a pool as a punchline, or watch Alex make eyes at her idiot boyfriend, it's from Matt's puzzled and frustrated point of view-- but Payne gives us Alex and Scottie's pain too, and the gifted young actresses take their moments and run with them. Alexander Payne's penchant for clever writing is very much on display in The Descendants, but he knows his words are only as good as his actors-- from the lead trio family to deeply affecting supporting turns from Judy Greer, Robert Forster and even Matthew Lillard, the cast steps up to make every moment of The Descendants matter, making the story feel bigger and more important simply by investing so much of themselves in it.

In many ways The Descendants has all the elements of the classic polished Hollywood dramedy, with beautiful cinematography, tastefully chosen music, attractive actors and high but not unreasonable dramatic stakes. That alone would be reason enough to nominate it for Best Picture, a prize that's frustratingly narrowly defined, but that usually finds a way to reward the best of what Hollywood does when it makes movies for grown-ups. But it's the rougher edges of The Descendants-- the Alexander Payne-ness of it, the now-ness of it-- that make it stand out. The way it engages with Matt's strange conflict in being both white and native Hawaiian, the way it depicts marriage as something that can break while nobody is watching, the way it allows Lillard's Brian Speer his own dignity even as a philanderer-- The Descendants goes down easy, but it carries tough things with it, and is all the more remarkable for it. Best Picture doesn't always have to reward the most ambitious or resonant film of the bunch-- sometimes when a film executes everything perfectly and tells a satisfying story, that's the biggest accomplishment of all.

For more arguments for and against this year's Oscar nominees, go right HERE.
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