The Descendants

If The Descendants was set in any other state than Hawaii, it would have been a completely different (probably worse) film. What a difference a location makes. Think of how many movies you see on a regular basis where the location is basically interchangeable or even unremarkable. Not in this case. It’s a mean trick because not only is it a gorgeously eye-melting location, the film uses the location to also support a meaningful environmental and societal cause for the local Hawaiian communities.

Clooney’s critically applauded little film is almost a companion piece to Up in the Air, the last smart, memorable little indie drama he did. I never would have thought to compare the styles of director Alexander Payne (The Descendants) and Jason Reitman (Up in the Air), but if you watched them back-to-back you’d almost guess they were the same director.

Payne’s style in Descendants is a little less heavy on the schlubby man spectacle than his previous efforts, Sideways and About Schmidt, but nonetheless utterly depressing. This is well-traversed and familiar territory for Payne, and he handles the material well, but it’s the addition of the young daughters to the story that really bring out the best in the film. Their interaction with Clooney as the disaffected father whose just coming to his senses thanks to a jarring turn of events, is typical, but welcomed.

Like most movies in this vein the children seem to be more observant and in touch with reality than the adults – isn’t that always the case? Maybe they see life from a narrower focus, preventing them from having to deal with the added pressures of literally everything else in the world… or, maybe, it’s actually the other way around. Either way, the film deserves all the credit it’s received; superb, engaging acting and an enthralling – albeit soap-operatic script hold up the simple, straightforward visuals (and really how can you make a film in Hawaii without an audience being enamored?). The fact is though, you probably won’t ever have the urge to revisit the movie in the future, it’s just not that kind of movie.

Being Flynn

Being Flynn is disposable filmmaking at its best. Here’s a relatively thought-provoking movie with a solid story and good acting that you’ll only walk away from easily forgetting. It’s in the same vein as the many other heavy family dramas of late, like Descendants. Why these movies gain so much acclaim is beyond me, as they are not necessarily amazing films, they are just pretty good films and have stories which people seem to be able to identify with – if not at least because they’re trying to escape similar situations in their own lives.

What’s funny is, there are millions of stories like this one and probably even better ones at that, and yet somehow this one becomes the fortunate one to survive the rest of the new age, sensitive and dramatic drivel out there. When I saw this film it was an advance screening and presented by none other than the former head of Sundance (now head of Tribeca), Geoffrey Gilmore. In the intro for the movie, Mr. Gilmore proclaimed that he sees a lot of films and it’s the ones that are different or unique that will make it in this present day “disruption” of filmmaking which we’re in (you know, day and date releases, video-on-demand, etc.), because it’s the unique films that will stand out. However, he directly works against his own statements by having hand selected this film for a special advance screening, because unfortunately this film is immediately forgettable and disposable despite its De Niro centerpiece and selling point.

Helmed by director Paul Weitz who you make recognize from earlier fare such as American Pie, there are little moments within this film that you can really hold on to and take with you once you leave the theater. You may crack a laugh, maybe even a smile, probably even feel really bad for Paul Dano’s character, Nick Flynn, at some point, but you’ll never truly care deep down.

There’s no way or chance even to emotionally invest in any of these characters. Yeah, Nick Flynn has a sad backstory, but what’s his deranged/eccentric father’s backstory? What’s his mother’s backstory? Filmicly (dramatically, that is), his mother (played lackadaisically by Julianne Moore here – shocking and disappointing), kills herself in the most unaffecting suicide scene I’ve ever seen in a film – and I’ve seen a lot of suicide scenes in films, because every filmmaker likes a good suicide scene.

It’s almost as if the director Weitz was afraid to do anything too painful with the scene because as he explained it in the Q&A afterwards, the real Nick Flynn (who wrote the memoir this film is based on, appropriately called Another Bullshit Night in Suck City), was on set with him that day as they shot the scene.

The worst part of the whole experience of this person’s life for me was a combination of De Niro’s overwrought performance as the eccentric and egocentric writer Jonathan Flynn and the way Weitz (and maybe the screenwriters?) decided they were tired of this movie now and had better wrap it up quickly at the end. I mean literally, Being Flynn does a 180 on you about ¾ of the way through and ties up everyone’s life in a nice easily digestible package. I can’t believe it could have happened so neatly and succintly in real life, so chalk that spin up to the Hollywood filmmaking formula.

Unfortunately suppressed in his performance for this film, Paul Dano is an awesome actor and he could have torn through the screen if he had been given the chance to, but his scenes which built up his drug addiction were so weak, sporadic and digestible, they almost seemed acceptable – literally the worst that happens to Dano when he’s drugged out on crack is he drinks from someone else’s beer glass. Yeah. His eyes get a little red and at the first mention of someone calling him an addict – BAM! – cut to scene with him at an AA meeting. Talk about cutting to the chase!

Weitz needs to stick to teen comedies, and Gilmore needs to rethink his latest film choices.