' ' Cinema Romantico: Why Mark Harris Is Wrong About The Descendants

Friday, January 27, 2012

Why Mark Harris Is Wrong About The Descendants

To be clear, film writer Mark Harris is fairly brilliant. He wrote the best, most engaging book I read all of last year. Mr. Harris, as the saying goes, has forgotten more about the history of cinema then I will ever know.

That said, he's an idiot.

I love "The Descendants." Go ahead and quote me. Fifty-seven times, if you want. I wrote this review of it within 48 hours of seeing it and I still stand by every single word. I named it my #5 movie of 2011 and I still stand firmly behind that, too. Of course, in the face of its awards success, many have turned against it. And Mr. Harris is among the most prominent haters. Now, to be even more clear, Mr. Harris didn't simply slide into "The Descendants"-haters camp once it started racking up Best Picture trophies from varying critics associations (The Winneshiek County Critics Association names "The Descendants" its picture of 2011!). He was against it from the beginning. And I respect that.

That also said, he's still an idiot.

(Note: There will be some minor spoilers ahead.)

Of the Oscar Best Picture nominee directed by Alexander Payne, Mr. Harris wrote: "It just opened to what Metacritic numerically defines as 'universal acclaim' (despite some serious non-acclaim from the likes of Time, Slate, and Movieline). Perhaps some of you saw it over the weekend and loved it, too. But perhaps some of you objected, as I did, to (mild spoilers follow) voice-over narration that is at first overbearing and then, mysteriously, gone. Or the TV-pilot-ish subplot about whether George Clooney’s character is going to sell a beautiful piece of Hawaiian land to rapacious developers, which takes two hours to go exactly where you know it’s headed the second it’s introduced. Or the movie’s irritating habit of introducing characters by showcasing their worst qualities — the teenage girl is an angry brat, the teenage boy is such an insensitive dolt that you’re happy when he’s punched in the face — only to turn around and say, no, you’ve judged them too hastily, they’re actually good, rock-solid, sensitive people, after which the movie never returns to or acknowledges their problematic sides again. In other words, 'The Descendants' makes them look like clich√©s only so that it can then claim they’re more complicated than they look. Anyway, I, frankly, don’t see what all the fuss — wait, where’d everyone go?"

In regards to the "voice-over narration that is at first overbearing and then, mysteriously, gone", well, that's just like "Jerry Maguire." And "The Royal Tenenbaums." And......I could do that all day.

Regarding the "TV-pilot-ish subplot" which "takes two hours to go exactly where you know it’s headed the second it’s introduced" allow me to first just say very, very loudly...SIGH. It never fails to amaze me how much misplaced pride (which doubles as pseudo-disgust) people take in being able to "predict" plot outcomes simply so at the end they can say "I told you so!" Yes, you know from the first moment that Clooney ISN'T going to sell the land. But do you know WHY he isn't going to sell the land?

In his review of the film the esteemed Roger Ebert writes: "The film follows Matt's legal, family and emotional troubles in careful detail, until Payne shows us, without forcing it, that they are all coiled together. A solution for one must be a solution for all. This is so much more complex than most movie plots, where good and evil are neatly compartmented and can be sorted out at the end." "The Descendants" carefully, wonderfully cultivates this multi-layered story so that by the time we reach the point where Clooney must decide if he will or will not sell the land it is made very clear that if he agrees not to sell it he can, in a sense and to be vulgar, screw the guy who was, ahem, screwing his wife. HOW CAN ANYONE MISS THAT?! As I said in my own review (to be self-indulgent): "The critical decision he makes in the end may very well seem predictable but stop and think about it for just a moment. Did he actually make it for the right reason?" To simply write off this subplot because you can "see it coming" is that lazy sort of criticism I despise.

And that brings us to "the movie’s irritating habit of introducing characters by showcasing their worst qualities...only to turn around and say, no, you’ve judged them too hastily, they’re actually good, rock-solid, sensitive people, after which the movie never returns to or acknowledges their problematic sides again." We will address the two characters he cites as examples in order.

"The teenage girl is an angry brat." This would be Alex (Shailene Woodley), the 17 year old daughter of our main character Matt King (George Clooney). And yes, that first time we meet her she comes across as a brat, defying authority, drinking, talking back to her dad. And yes, as the film progresses this introduction will prove to be less than entirely accurate. But, is she actually a good, rock-solid, sensitive person? Does the movie never return to or acknowledges her problematic side again? Consider, for example, just who it is that pushes her father to track down and, in turn, spy - yes, spy - on the man with whom his wife was cheating. Consider just who it is that pushes her father to go up to this house of the man on whom he's been spying and knock on the door to confront him and who then assists in getting that man's wife out of the way so her father can continue with the confrontation. Alex! That's who! Is that "rock-solid"? Is that not acknowledging her "problematic side again"? That is beyond question one of my favorite bits in any movie in 2011. Father & Daughter teaming up and sleuthing around and, for a moment, the father regressing to the level of an immature teenager, failing to note the consequences of his actions for anyone else involved in this - to quote Juno Macguff's stepmom - "garbage dump of a situation." It's GLORIOUS! It's the DEFINITION of "complicated"!!! Dammit, we should be so lucky to have this sort of easy-going complexity in filmmaking ALL THE TIME!!! I'M GETTING A MIGRAINE!!!!!!

......getting it together......

This brings us to the "insensitive dolt", Syd (Nick Krause) who is Alex's kinda, sorta boyfriend and who shows up often and tags along for various excursions because Alex makes it clear she will be easier to deal with if he's around. And for the majority - I repeat, majority - of his screen time he is portrayed as insensitive and a dolt. Or, to say it another way, he is introduced by showcasing his worst quality primarily because his worst quality is his FOREMOST quality. He is an insensitive dolt, until the wonderful sequence when Matt and Sid find themselves having a late night chat. I self-indulgently quote myself again (underline added): "Then Matt asks him about his family and Sid offers a fairly harsh revelation – without ever ceasing to be the character he’s been the whole way – and hits Matt and us hard."

Matt poses a question and without even thinking about Sid supplies an answer, he simply says exactly what comes out of his mouth first, which is exactly how he's acted the whole movie, except in this moment he miraculously steps up to the plate......kind of a dolt savant, if you will. And the admission he makes to Matt is what explains his problematic side that Harris claims was merely an invention of the writers.

If there is one thing that annoys me above everything else about awards season it is unquestionably backlash. And the backlash against "The Descendants" as it dukes it out for a possible Best Picture win is pissing.me.off. So hey, Mark Harris, go lash your back somewhere else. Thank you.


Andy Buckle said...

*Claps* I don't get the backlash against this film either - but I also don't get the love for War Horse. Each to their own. But I do agree with all of your counter-arguments. I think the film is wonderful, and I totally bought Alexandra and Sid's development through the film. I initially did think that the voice-over was overused early, but once it has set up all that it needs to - the rest is conveyed through their situations and dialogue. The novel is entirely in first person - very hard to convey this any other way, I think.

Derek Armstrong said...


This is why I like reading you. I don't actually love the movie -- I may be closer to Harris than you, in fact -- but you have very effectively argued why the REASONS he gives for not liking the movie are specious. Me, I wouldn't say I *didn't* like it, just that it doesn't stand up to the quality of the rest of Payne's work. You know I love you.

Derek Armstrong said...

Also, where can I find the 2011 rankings you alluded to?

Derek Armstrong said...

Sorry, one more comment so I can remember to check to have the follow-up comments emailed to me. :-)

Nick Prigge said...

Andy: Thank you, sir. I knew I could at least count on you to be in "The Descendants" camp. There were a few lines in the voiceover I thought I might have unnecessarily force-fed points (and I mentioned that in my review too) but Harris just seemed agitated by the mere existence and then quick disappearance of it which is a device that's been around since the advent of the talkie.

Vance: Thanks so much, man, I really do appreciate you saying that, and I really don't actually mind if people don't love this film as much as me. I mean, what fun would that be if we were all in heavenly agreement? But, you know, I have to exaggerate for effect and it seems like a lot of the negative sentiments toward it in the last couple weeks were quoting Harris and so I just couldn't help myself. I will stand up for my favorites.

And my Top 10 for 2011 is over on Anomalous Material. (Now that I write for two sites I have a lot of material going up all the time.) I'd be interested to hear what you think of it.


Derek Armstrong said...

I'll comment here rather than on Anomalous Material, because frankly, Anomalous Material scares me. (I'm joking, but the one time I commented on an AM post, I was getting emailed follow-up comments to the post for the next six months. I'm not kidding.)

Very interesting #1 choice. I wasn't familiar with it until it appeared on my friend's list, which he does as I do mine -- a listing of all the movies we saw that year. (Which I argue is useful because it shows what movies I saw but didn't think highly enough of to include near the top of my list. Otherwise you might not know if I saw them.) I am now determined to see this. He had it considerably lower I'm afraid, but my movie tastes may have more in common with yours.

The choices I agree with most passionately are Take Shelter and Meek's Cutoff. Years from now I'm going to regret that I didn't have Meek's higher than #19 on my list.

I really liked Senna, but I've decided that many documentaries don't have the potential to move me to the extent that a fiction film does. Therefore, they land in kind of a dumping ground in the early 30s on my list, which is where Senna landed. However, that's pretty good for a list that's 120 titles long.

Sorry, this comment ended up being half about me and less than half about your list. Wait, that adds up to less than a whole. I'm bad at math first thing in the morning.

Castor said...

I just saw this on Saturday morning. I liked it but thought it was a bit heavy-handed with the sap. I would have liked a more balanced approach with some dry humor from Clooney (which he usually does so well). Also, Payne goes to great length to show how dysfunctional and messed up the daughters are but after 20 minutes or so, most of these issues are swept under the rug and never appear again.

Nick Prigge said...

See, man, I just disagree completely. I do. I don't think it's as sappy as people say it is. I really think it's tough. Take, for example, Judy Greer's big moment at the hospital. It LOOKS sappy just because we're conditioned to think hospital-bed confessions are sappy but it's not. It's really, really not. That's brutal, human truth. She's giving forgiveness almost out of obligation, because she's laying there dying.

And this is what I was trying to convey in my review - it has the "look" of Oscar bait, but that's deceptive. It's the real deal in the guise of Oscar bait.

I'm sorry. I just love this movie. And I get emotional about the movies I love.

Derek Armstrong said...

The scene you cite, Nick, exemplifies both a) proof that the movie is not as sappy as some would accuse it of being, and b) one of my most problematic scenes in the movie. Here Judy Greer is, having this great and true moment -- I think it's my favorite performance I've ever seen her give. However, then Payne undercuts it with humor and tells the audience to see her character as ridiculous. This is one of those one step forward, two steps back moments for Payne. Some people have said that this movie shows him growing into more of a humanist -- he doesn't take some of the "cheap shots" that he's taken at characters in his other movies. However, I say that he saved his biggest cheap shot of this movie for the time he could least afford it.

Nick Prigge said...

Wait, what was the cheap shot? I'm honestly not remembering what it was. (I've been meaning to see this a 2nd time but kind of want to save it for Oscar sunday.)

Derek Armstrong said...

Oh, all I meant was that Greer had just given us such a three-dimensional character with such real emotions -- you know, far different from her usual role as "sarcastic best friend in romantic comedy." And then Payne undercuts it by having her take it up a notch into crazy-girl land and have Clooney usher her out of the room. What a knee-slapper! Why, Alexander? Why?

Anonymous said...

Interesting backlash. The Descendants made #4 in my list of top 10 favorites movies of 2011. I really enjoyed it. Now, I prefer a film like "The Artist" to take Best Picture. But in terms of deprecating the film, Harris kinda went all over the place in his remarks. Those arguments could be made against so many films, that I don't think they really stand for much just because he's unhappy to see the credit The Descendants is receiving.

On the other hand, I partly feel like The Descendants gets so much attention just because of Clooney. And that does irritate me. I loved Shailene Woodley in it, and I'm disappointed to see her not get an Oscar nom.