Friday, November 18, 2011

"The Descendants" Review

Alexander Payne paints a different picture of Hawaii. In the opening montage of his new film The Descendants, the director not so gently reminds us that the island "paradise," with its little-photographed cities and suburbs, isn't exactly the Eden we've been sold. The sequence perfectly reflects Payne's no bullshit pragmatism, seen last in 2004's excellent Sideways. For gluttons for Payne, The Descendants has been a long time coming.

Based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the film follows George Clooney as Matt King, a wealthy lawyer with hereditary ties to Hawaiian royalty, and the sole trustee of his family's thousands of acres of untapped land. As King circles a buyer for the valuable property, his wife falls off a jet ski and into a coma — but there are no saints in an Alexander Payne movie. Even the comatose Mrs. King has her share of skeletons.

Few filmmakers walk the line between comedy and drama so effortlessly. The Descendants finds a happy middle ground in Payne's oeuvre, somewhere between the amusing introspection of About Schmidt and the droll wit of Sideways. And if the subject at hand seems too heavy or dry, never fear — Payne's world is colored by conflicted, flawed, funny, but singularly endearing people.

Take King's daughter's dopey friend Sid, a character with shades of Election's all-heart-no-brains jock, Paul Metzler ("You Betzler!"). Or better yet, take King himself, who bares all the familiar scars of an Alexander Payne protagonist. From his casual narcissism to his angered impulsiveness, King's foibles are many, brought vividly to life by George Clooney.

Payne has a history of stranding his actors outside their comfort zone. Clooney isn't as malleable a leading man as Paul Giamatti, but there are sides of him in The Descendants that I haven't seen before. He plays King with an empathetic weakness many of his past roles have lacked. Clooney characters tend to overcompensate for their flaws with charisma, with interest. Under Payne, Clooney doesn't have the luxury of playing up that strength, and the results are revealing.

This isn't the first time Payne has deliberately subverted audience preconception, either. No doubt he had Ferris Bueller in mind when he cast Matthew Broderick as a high school civics teacher in Election. He got Jack Nicholson (Chinatown's Jake Gittes!) to play a curmudgeonly widower in About Schmidt. In The Descendants, George Clooney, Sexiest Man Alive twice over, cries.

Alexander Payne's films have been accused of being callous and misanthropic, but The Descendants highlights his earnest side as well. It isn't sentimental, and it earns it moments of sentimentality. Early on, the film teeters on the precipice of becoming a tacky father-daughter Movie Of the Week. The tropes are there, but Payne stylishly navigates a minefield of clichés in which most directors would eventually misstep.

A near perfect combination of comedy and catharsis, The Descendants is an impressive film from a director who's been dormant too long. Seemingly, not much has changed for Payne since he released Sideways seven years ago, but the hiatus has made him no less confident in his unique American perspective. Welcome back, Alex.


Friday, November 4, 2011

Everyone's excited for the new Brett Ratner movie, right? Jonesing for another marginal action-comedy in the vein of Rush Hour 2? You're in luck! Tower Heist fits the bill, and despite its allusions to 2011 Wall Street turmoil, the familiar flick feels very much of that era. The Rat-man's latest is cookie-cutter entertainment at its most transient, but everyone likes cookies. Right?

In Tower Heist, Ben Stiller plays subservient chief of staff at a ritzy Central Park apartment complex — but when a tenant (Alan Alda) swindles him and his workforce out of their pensions, it's no more Mr. Nice Josh. He masterminds a robbery with the help of his concierge (Casey Affleck), an elevator operator (Michael Peña), a downtrodden former resident (Matthew Broderick), and a Jamaican cleaning woman (Gabourey Sidibe). Unschooled as they are in the art of the steal, Josh also employs the aid of petty criminal "Slide," (Eddie Murphy) who gives the crew a crash course in crime.

The cast of Tower Heist, anchored by Stiller, Alda, and the under-appreciated 'other' Affleck, is its greatest asset. Gabourey Sidibe pulls a Melissa McCarthy in a similar big girl supporting role, and as for Eddie Murphy — it's good to know that there's still a funny guy beneath the Norbit prosthetics. Granted, nobody's working with AAA material here, but their comic chemistry makes for some laugh out loud moments.

Conceived and written by Ted Griffin of Ocean's Eleven and Matchstick Men, Tower Heist strictly adheres to caper convention. Assemble the team, unfurl the plan, set said plan into motion, and wait for it all to come undone. It's a tried and true formula, which is ironic considering the risk its characters incur. There's even a heavy-handed chess metaphor about sacrificing one's Queen, but Griffin is a decidedly defensive player.

Then there's the Rat-factor. Poor Brett's an easy guy to hate. Called "Hollywood's Ad Impresario" by Businessweek, he's the dude who wants to make a Guitar Hero movie. He's a purely commercial filmmaker who's helmed competent but inferior follow-ups to beloved franchises like X-Men and Silence of the Lambs. And let's face it, he's kind of ugly. With Tower Heist, the director isn't flexing any artistic muscles, but he's got the mechanics down pat.

Plus, he's got the good sense to hire performers who probably don't need much direction. Guys like Stiller, Murphy, and Broderick are so well practiced that they're entertaining even when they're resting on their laurels. Similarly, Ratner's worked with cinematographer Dante Spinotti enough times to not have to concern himself with the visual aspects of filmmaking. Though the credits suggest otherwise, Ratner's role is nearer to producer than director.

Consequently, Tower Heist feels impersonal and even a bit disingenuous. After all, what could Brett Ratner, the privileged son of a Miami socialite turned blockbuster director, have in common with the working stiffs he portrays? It's easy to hate Ratner, but unfair to channel that negative energy at his work. With a good cast and decent material, Tower Heist is an amusing, inconsequential diversion that entertains and evaporates in the span of 100 minutes. And with a family friendly PG-13 rating, this cookie-cutter action-comedy is poised to make loads of dough.