TELLURIDE: Payne’s ‘Descendants’ plays, but doesn’t quite reach the bar he’s set for himself

Posted by · 4:23 pm · September 2nd, 2011

Over the years Alexander Payne has been invited to Telluride to debut various films, but conflicts with other festivals have always kept that from becoming a reality. He finally attended his first SHOW here two years ago as a Guest Director for the festival. And today, he finally brought a film with him, debuting “The Descendants” to the first audience ever as part of the press and patrons special screening at the Chuck Jones Cinema.

“It’s funny how long it can sometimes take to realize your destiny, to be a part of this festival,” he told the audience while introducing the film. And indeed, Payne fits right in here with the cineastes.

The film, however, I found to be a bit Payne-lite. There’s a wonderful subtlety to the effort that certainly isn’t present in his past work. There’s an effortlessness here, where something akin to straining would frequently pop up in his breed of dramedy. And the level of cynicism in most of his work, including his still-best “Sideways,” was refreshingly absent here. But it doesn’t have the density of his past work, and I missed that.

Ultimately the film is about catharsis and its many faces: revenge, anger, love, forgiveness, etc. And it is, ultimately, quite a complete piece of thematic work in that regard (as Payne’s films tend to be). It’s also a great vehicle for George Clooney to stretch. The actor really allows himself to stay under the directorial vision of the film while never losing any of the charm and charisma of his star.

Yet there is something that feels somewhat diminished by the film’s cruising along a slighter path for so long before tying its themes up in an emotional way. While Payne mostly dodges “look-at-me” comedy strokes (save for going broad with actor Nick Krause once or twice too much), the main character’s central quest in the film — to confront the man who was sleeping with his now comatose wife — comes off so small for so long that the final payoff of catharsis feels slightly burdened.

Shailene Woodley is appropriately bitchy and angsty as Clooney’s teenage daughter who knew of the affair. She’s a great sidekick for his character throughout and when confrontation happens, it’s played incredibly tight and controlled. Robert Forster gets a handful of moments to be the crabby grandfather to Clooney’s daughters, while Beau Bridges (though unfortunately saddled with exposition much of the time) is a total breath of fresh air on the screen here.

The film will be, I imagine, largely adored by critics. Film awards seem like a tough thing to gauge from here, but my instinct is Clooney and perhaps the screenplay could find room in the Oscar conversation, and that the film could do well on the whole as a Golden Globe hopeful. But it remains to be seen how Academy members will respond. My hunch is they will appreciate, finally, a film from Payne that doesn’t have to be bitter to depict harsh realities. Sometimes the harsh realities bring plenty of that to the table. Will that be enough to wrangle a Best Picture nomination? I’m not afraid to say I’m not really sure.

More from Telluride as it happens. “George Harrison: Living in the Material World” and “Albert Nobbs” are still to come this evening.

[Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures]

→ 40 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily · Reviews

40 responses so far

  • 1 9-02-2011 at 4:52 pm

    The Dude said...

    First-reactions to this film seem to be very positive (your review, Kris, is the most negative reaction I’ve read, and quite frankly it ain’t all that negative to begin with). It’s certainly gotten more positive word than compared to the Venice debuts. Looking forward to hearing your early reaction to “Albert Nobbs” (which is my “sleeper hit” pick of the Oscar season).

  • 2 9-02-2011 at 4:56 pm

    Jesse Crall said...

    I actually loved the bitter qualities in Payne’s earlier works…I’m disappointed to hear that there’s broad comedy at all in the picture. Broad comedy works in broad comedies, but in subtler works it seems woefully out of place and takes me out of the moment. Oh well, I love Payne and I’m sure I’ll dig this anyways…Good review, Kris.

  • 3 9-02-2011 at 4:57 pm

    Keith said...

    Thanks Kris! Well done. The reaction coming out of Venice and Telluride has been most interesting. Given your and Guy’s responses, I’ll be curious to see your year end lists.

  • 4 9-02-2011 at 4:59 pm

    Mr. Gittes said...

    Then it’s now about Steve McQueen’s SHAME. Hammond’s hearing Fassbender comes out of it a star — well, duh — but so, too, should MCQUEEN. Time for Shame to shakeup the predictions.

    I hear Shame is the movie that finally addresses the I-Phone (cryptic!), and thank God, because Fincher isn’t going there with Girl with Tattoo. Bummer.

  • 5 9-02-2011 at 5:06 pm

    Maxim said...

    I’ve always been puzzled by the reception to “Sideways”. It’s a good movie but I thought that “About Schmidt” was more daring, sharper and, ultimately, more impactful. To me at least.

    In any case, Payne is an interesting filmmaker and his “Paris Je T’aime” short was among the very best.

  • 6 9-02-2011 at 5:14 pm

    redcup said...

    Hearing about a lack of cynicism is very promising. That, coupled with his undying condescension, have always been stumbling blocks for me when approaching Payne’s work.

  • 7 9-02-2011 at 5:15 pm

    Jesse Crall said...

    Maxim: I may like About Schmidt better as well, if only because I think it was more challenging to craft an interesting narrative based on an elderly man’s dissatisfactions. But I think both are solid A’s.

  • 8 9-02-2011 at 5:15 pm

    Dana Jones said...

    Do you still think Woodley may get in with a supporting nod?

  • 9 9-02-2011 at 5:17 pm

    JCS said...

    Election >>>> Sideways.

    Still, if this is substantially different than Sideways – which I hoped it would be – my hopes have been slightly raised.

  • 10 9-02-2011 at 5:28 pm

    JJ1 said...

    And now another ‘good’ film. There’s yet to be the wower in these festivals, thus far.

    But I do look forward to this. Love Payne.

  • 11 9-02-2011 at 5:44 pm

    The Other James D. said...

    Good point, JJ1.

    I can’t really see Woodley getting nominated. The role doesn’t seem meaty enough and not sure her performance will manage to outweight other contenders.

    Even though I loathed the trailer, it did seem like strong work from Clooney–albeit like Up in the Air redux. (Interestingly enough, someone on Twitter called it “Alexander Payne trying to make a Jason Reitman film”.)

    @The Dude: I’m hoping for the same re: Albert Nobbs. If it’s good, I can see it being one of the annual unexpected surprises in the race, that’s embraced beyond the performance.

  • 12 9-02-2011 at 5:45 pm

    General Butt Fucking Naked said...

    Don’t know what to think. “Election,” “Schmidt” and “Sideways” were each my #1s of their respect years of release, so this has a tough bar to reach for me.

    But Jesse, there was broad comedy (brilliantly done) in all three of those works. The fat couple fucking and then Giamatti getting chased? Schmidt taking Kathy Bates’ hysterectomy pills and getting goofy? The hot tub?

    I don’t necessarily see a problem with its inclusion here.

  • 13 9-02-2011 at 5:45 pm

    General Butt Fucking Naked said...


  • 14 9-02-2011 at 5:49 pm

    Maxim said...

    It does feel like the pool is getting smaller. I’m talking about the potential winner(s), not necessarily nominees as there is still plenty of contenders to go around.

    In my mind, the major threats for the win remain “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” and “War Horse”.

  • 15 9-02-2011 at 5:58 pm

    The Other James D. said...

    ELAIC could probably go either way. Either Daldry will finally have a miss with the Academy, or it’ll be a rousing success. I remain skeptical about it, perhaps because of the perspective of the narrative.

    WH is conventional, but plausible of course.

    I still think The Artist is being underestimated as a potential winner. Being a potential crowd pleasing fan favorite, and also such a unique film in our generation, could result in a Slumdog Millionaire type of win. We’ll see. Three months to wade and sift through before it all really begins.

  • 16 9-02-2011 at 5:59 pm

    Keith said...

    I always enjoy but sort of dread this stage, early fall, late summer, when the contenders with genuinely good pedigrees disappoint and fall away. Not that this movie or any of the others discussed this week have fallen away necessarily. But I definitely sense them losing some oomph or buzz if these reviews become the consensus. But I also enjoy those surprise films, the sleepers that surface and become contenders. Surely that will happen as well.

  • 17 9-02-2011 at 6:00 pm

    Andrew M said...

    I agree with Maxim that those two films (and probably The Artist) are the ones to watch out for, win wise. Though I could see the academy going for this, as it could be the comedy in the field. Young Adult or the new voting system are the spoilers though.

  • 18 9-02-2011 at 6:01 pm

    Keith said...

    @The Other James D., I totally agree about The Artist. Based on what I’ve read and I don’t know, just a gut feeling, I think that movie is going to be a much bigger force this awards season than people are expecting.

  • 19 9-02-2011 at 6:04 pm

    Andrew M said...

    I’d also throw J.Edgar into potential winners. Though it might be a little bland, but we will have to see.

  • 20 9-02-2011 at 6:10 pm

    Rashad said...

    I never got the Sideways love either. I’d much rather Before Sunset get the adoration it deserved that year.

  • 21 9-02-2011 at 6:13 pm

    The Other James D. said...

    Glad you agree, Keith. After going the more conventional Oscar way last year, something fresh could be up their alley.

    @Andrew M: Don’t actually see that winning. One-man shows like that get nominated but seldom win. The Queen is a perfect example of that. I’ve been feeling a DiCaprio win is in the cards for quite some time though. And I’m not even saying it’s what I want. ;)

    Re: Sideways I remember being confused about the hype when I first saw it, but appreciating it more the second time. Alas, I still don’t get why Church and Madsen swept the critics awards. What the fuck did they actually do?? Clive Owen should’ve had all of those. And I hated Closer. But I floved him in it–the one redeeming aspect.

  • 22 9-02-2011 at 6:15 pm

    Glenn said...

    I miss “Citizen Ruth” and “Election”.

  • 23 9-02-2011 at 6:39 pm

    JJ1 said...

    The Other James D. … I think Church & Madsen were successful that season – not only because they gave incredibly natural, easy performances – but because so many of the other nominees in their categories were “actingggg” performances; however good they were. If you know what I mean.

  • 24 9-02-2011 at 6:55 pm

    Andrew M said...

    The Other James D- Maybe you’re right. I was kind of thinking of that when I said bland, but didn’t word it correctly. It might be along the line of The Aviator however, with one part on his career and the other part on the more controversial side of him.

  • 25 9-02-2011 at 6:58 pm

    Andrew M said...

    *to make it a little more then a one man show.

  • 26 9-02-2011 at 7:21 pm

    Jesse Crall said...

    To the esteemed General Butt Fucking Naked:

    Those scenes were BIG but all handled with a sort of deadpan and muted quality that kept them realistic. When I say broad, I mean like the huge lawn fight and reveal at the end of Crazy, Stupid, Love or something. Not sure what Kris defines it as…

  • 27 9-02-2011 at 7:31 pm

    m1 said...

    Was Sideways really that cynical? When I finally saw it (I loved it, BTW) I thought that it was fluffier than I expected.

    Re Before Sunset: I agree that it should have gotten much more love. I don’t think it’s better than Sideways, but it deserved a Best Picture nod over the generic Finding Neverland. The dialogue is amazing and Delpy is outstanding in it. If Delpy, Hawke, and Linklater ever do a third, hopefully they will get more attention for it.

  • 28 9-02-2011 at 7:32 pm

    Keith said...

    Jessee and GBFN, not sure about broad or not, but what strikes me is that the Payne scenes worked. They were in fact funny, at least to me. I saw Crazy, Stupid, Love and liked it generally, but the lawn scene was a colossal fail of awkward and forced humor, even in the context of a far less agile script. I do agree though that a fault of Payne’s is the challenge of maintaining a consistent tone–it’s a highwire act of sorts that he pulls off better in some films (Sideways, Election) than others.

  • 29 9-02-2011 at 7:36 pm

    redcup said...

    THR mentions narration; how much?

  • 30 9-02-2011 at 8:19 pm

    Maxim said...

    “I never got the Sideways love either. I’d much rather Before Sunset get the adoration it deserved that year.”

    Rashad, Before Sunset deserved to win Best Picture that year, imo.

  • 31 9-02-2011 at 9:21 pm

    DarkLayers said...

    This is InContention, not just AMPAS, so I’m wondering how do other organizations look for this, especially critics. NYFCC and LAFCA liked Sideways a lot, even though “Eternal Sunshine” (InContention’s favorite movie of the aughts) was more frequent on members’ decade list. About Schmidt also garnered LAFCA love.

    Tree of Life and Melancholia seem pretty competetive, and could be the best bets for critics’ awards (though New World didn’t get big play with critics). May be tough to figure out ToL prospects for wins. So, will be neat to see what plays are there.

  • 32 9-02-2011 at 10:08 pm

    tony rock said...

    So I guess you guys just dislike everything this year? Sorry…just seems that way since the beginning of summer.

  • 33 9-02-2011 at 10:50 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    redcup: Lots of narration to get things started. Kinda put me off honestly.

    tony: Not sure how this reads as disliking it.

  • 34 9-03-2011 at 2:13 am

    RichardA said...

    I reads like: likes it, other critics might like it more, will get nods, but not sure about BP.

  • 35 9-03-2011 at 5:42 am

    JJ1 said...

    RichardA … in other words … like every other movie that has been released at Venice/Telluride, thus far, lol.

    Lots of question marks about these films in the early goings (as far as Oscar potentials).

  • 36 9-03-2011 at 9:52 am

    redcup said...


    Thanks for the info. 99/100 I’m ardently anti-narration, so that one piece of information dials back my enthusiasm and interest considerably.

  • 37 9-05-2011 at 12:07 pm

    DylanS said...

    Kris: In your expert opinion, how confident are you that Clooney will get a nomination for this? I’m sure he’s quite good in this, but the Best Actor race looks to have a lot of depth this year and I feel like this is the kind of understated performance that doesn’t quite make it, even considering Clooney’s star power and the films likely stance as a major awards contender.

  • 38 9-05-2011 at 12:35 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I feel pretty good about Clooney here. Especially considering Ides being in play for added exposure. It’s not so understated as to potentially be unimpressive to some viewers, mind you. He’s working it and it shows.