Monday, September 12, 2011

Outlook for 'The Descendants' is sunny at Toronto

By Sarah Sluis

Film Journal International contributor Erica Abeel continues her reports from the Toronto Film Festival.

The Descendants is a crowd pleaser and family entertainment for the multiplex. The wonder is that it arrives from the normally edgier Alexander Payne (About Schmidt and Sideways). In Descendants from Go all the elements of mainstream filmmaking are lined up like sparrows on a telephone wire: after a nasty boating accident, the wife of lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) lies in a coma: Matt must repair his tattered relationship with his daughters (Shailene Woodley and Kaleigh Kennedy); meanwhile - and The descendants 2 Matt happens to be filthy rich, as if that were a mere incidental - he needs to make decisions regarding the sale of billions of dollars worth of Hawaiian land owned for generations by his family.

Matt, it turns out, is the prototypical over-achieving male, sequestered by work from the emotional demands of women, in this case wife and daughters.

It's a juicy role for a mid-career actor, and Clooney handles it with flair, projecting a fundamental decency when everyone around him is behaving badly. At film's opening he resolves to reform: "I'm ready to be a real husband and real father," he promises himself and his mute, intubated wife. Trouble is, she ain't ever wakin' up and the daughters are in rebellion mode against their absentee dad. Worse, you can see from the outset that this story is heading inexorably straight for warm-and-fuzzyville. The only thing is to sit back and go with it.

Descendants, I should mention, has received largely positive press, with lavish praise for Clooney in a career-capping turn. Dissenters appear to be in the minority.

The film's requisite plot complication is injected when the older teen daughter drops a bomb, informing her "clueless" dad that mom has been having an affair. Dad, daughters and the teen's doofus friend then go island hopping to locate the lover - a married realtor -- at a beach resort. And accomplish what, exactly? Well, request that the guy pay his respects at the dying woman's bedside. In a neat bit of plot housekeeping, it's eventually revealed that the realtor stands to get rich from Matt's land deal � The reason the lizard was shagging Matt's wife?

Unless Matt refuses, for reasons of ecology and family tradition, to sell ...

Descendants moves along at a nice clip and its offbeat humor - usually involving outrageous teen cutups - keeps your interest. But the film often feels disingenuous and fake. Take Matt's voiceover about supposedly idyllic Hawaii: "paradise can go fuck itself, " he says. Cut to a parade of the island's lame and impoverished, like something out of "The Threepenny Opera." Yes, we know there's trouble in paradise, but unlike those poor slobs Matt has the financial means to manage it. His daughters mainly come off as spoiled and bratty.

More crucially, the wife is a complete cipher - no flashbacks, no nuthin' to delineate a real person; we know only that she had lousy taste in lovers and liked extreme sports. This hole in the plot impedes our sympathy for Matt, since we don't know whom he's mourning. In his final farewell scene at his wife's bedside, the angst feel unearned. That said, you can enjoy the film as a travelogue for its luscious views of Oahu and Waikiki. And the casting is aces; for once characters are overweight or pimply, not just Hollywood fictions. And throughout, the gracefully aging George Clooney, with his middle-aged lope, shapely calves, and sorrowing dark eyes, is a joy to watch.

Of course attending a film festival is not ALL work and sleep deprivation. As always the Sony Pictures Classics party at posh Crme Brasserie was a fest social highlight and more than lived up to A_Dangerous_Method_keira_knightley expectations. I chatted at length with Keira Knightley (starring in SPC's A Dangerous Method), wearing a dress that appeared to be missing its back. She was surrounded by smiling but rather fearsome muscle men. Biting into a large langoustine, Knightley cracked "this should lay to rest any rumors I'm anorexic."

I asked how she prepared for her scenes as Sabina Spielrein, Jung's patient who first appears as a screaming lunatic. She replied she sent director David Cronenberg some mad scenes on Skype and he weighed in on them. She admitted to balking initially at playing the film's spanky scenes, but decided they were "incredibly important to the story." She's been quoted as saying, "You go into a David Cronenberg film - and part of the reason that I love his work - is its explicit, shocking nature. As an actor you have to be very clear with yourself. You either do it or you don't." What struck me most about Knightley: she doesn't come on actress-y and egomaniacal. She was joined by Viggo Mortensen and Cronenberg and the trio posed and horsed around for photogs, passing around a wacko-looking Russian hat.

Next I pinholed Dangerous screenwriter Christopher Hampton a master of scripts based on complex literary works (Liaisons Dangereuses, Atonement). He said he was awed by the enormous amount of preparation undertaken by Viggo to play Sigmund Freud. Mortensen went so far as to hunt down and read the exact same books Freud kept in his library -- and in the role he's one of the film's principal delights. Next up for Cronenberg is an adaptation of Don DeLillo's novel Cosmopolis.

By now we'd all had far too much vino. As I wove toward my table with Israeli director Joseph Cedar (Footnotes), I bumped into Michael Shannon. He was taller than I'd imagined, and even scarier in person than on screen.

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