It was Jim’s birthday this weekend, and we went to go see A Dangerous Method on Friday. It was…kind of ridiculous? Like, really campy? Which no one had warned me about. Lots of people showing up in each other’s doorways in their fancy old-fashioned clothes and staring dramatically, and a hell of a lot of shots of people writing letters with quill pens while reading them in voiceover. And lots of Kiera Knightley’s neck. It was pretty good, though, I think?
But then on Saturday we saw The Descendants.
You guys, I liked this movie so, so, so, so much. It was just…oh, it was gorgeous. I cried once or twice, duh, but mostly I left the theater and just started crying again, from like, release, and also because the ending was so sad but it was so right. I am sort of grossing myself out writing like this, but it’s hard not to say things like ‘the movie was just so real it made me cry.’ So real, man!
The trailer doesn’t really make it seem that interesting, and neither do the posters I just waded through looking for a picture to put there. They don’t even have taglines, or catchy pitches, or anything, really. The trailer is sort of unclear – this is a movie about…a dude? And some stuff? His daughter, and his wife? What genre is it? What’s its “thing,” exactly? How is it supposed to make me feel?
But that’s exactly it – The Descendants is just, like, a story, about a family. About some people, actually, not just the family. There’s no gimmick, no genre, no meta-story, no larger point about film-making or storytelling or whatever. It’s just a particular set of people going through a particular thing, in a particular place. Which sounds maybe boring or uninteresting, but in this case was just handled so well that…well, for me, it was a “why aren’t more movies like this?” moment.
I always think that a really well-done story is one where there are no ‘bad’ guys, where everyone is a fully rounded person, making bad choices or doing things wrong, but being a person nonetheless. I’m thinking of The Wire and Friday Night Lights here. In this movie Matthew Lillard (welcome back, Matthew Lillard!) is arguably kind of a big douche, but he’s the only one. (For the record, I have never stopped loving Matthew Lillard). Even the wife, who never really gets to speak for herself, she gets her moments, her shadings, her dimensions. I read one criticism that said that all the characters are introduced by their flaws, and then once you’ve decided to not like them Alexander Payne shows that they are good people, and it’s all a big trick. But I think that is the idea – that people who may be flawed find ways to change themselves in the face of tragedy and upheaval, and that big changes in lives make big changes. People soften around death, families who spend more time together get along better, the personal puts the political in perspective. All of this is sort of obvious stuff, but the amazing thing about this movie is it allows obvious stuff to happen without seeming cliched. These things are obvious-seeming because they do happen, and the movie lets them. (I still <3 you, Mark Harris, and you’re not totally wrong about the voiceover).
George Clooney Aaron Rodgers the whole movie, making it look easy to telegraph feelings while still holding them, to be responsible and idoitic, textured without grandstanding. Shailene Woodley really is as amazing as everyone says, and Judy Greer, too, another person I’ve always loved. And then there’s Sid, who seems so out there and unnecessary that he feels even realer. I am replacing my “aspirations list” on my fridge (currently: buy plants, nice speakers) with Sid’s list of his own good qualities: pretty smart, decent guitar player, always cooking, nice to his mom, good hygiene, vice president of the Paloi chess club, and I always have weed.
Other reviews I’ve been reading have been talking about this movie’s sense of place, which I also thought was really amazing. So many movies feel like they take place on backlots, on some generic city-ish American place, which is fine – that’s not the focus, and that’s ok. This movie, though, felt so strongly rooted in Hawaii, from the characters’ ridiculous shoes to those perfect houses, suburban but ever-so-slightly different, pictures of leis and “Relax” signs on the porches, those crazy flowers in the yard. Everyone seemed lived in, like they really belonged there. They used slang and expressions but not in that obnoxious, look-how-authentic-we-are way; everything just felt, again, real. And I’m not just saying that because I’ve been there. (But guys, that middle section where they go to Kauai and hang out in Hanalei? That’s where I was! Jim and I stayed in a condo like 20 feet up from the hotel they stayed in! We went to that beach, we drove on those roads!)
This is turning into a pretty embarrassing tongue bath, so I’ll stop now. (Though I still haven’t been as bad as AO Scott – “To call “The Descendants” perfect would be a kind of insult, a betrayal of its commitment to, and celebration of, human imperfection.” The Descendants: TOO goddamn perfect). The point is, I loved this movie so much. Go see it, everyone!