Middling Men: The Descendants and J. Edgar

11/09/2011 4:00 AM |

The Descendants
Directed by Alexander Payne
Opens November 16
J. Edgar
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Opens November 9

Alexander Payne’s celebrated return to feature filmmaking, years after Sideways, and Clint Eastwood’s bullheaded biopic about the founder of the FBI are both off-putting pictures. Payne’s film relates a Hawaiian scion’s attempt at reevaluating his life in the shadow of grief, but unnecessarily couches its emotional panorama in a language of punchlined portrayal and often cheap humor. Concealing his star more than Payne does, Eastwood asks us to stick close to a pompous, vengeful superbureaucrat, shuffling his story bewilderingly between past and present, and withholding more than it tells about his much-gossiped private life.

George Clooney, spiritually hunched, plays The Descendants’s Matt King, a lawyer confronted with dynastic decision-making and unbearable limbo when his wife Elizabeth is paralyzed in a waterskiing accident. His extended family’s vast land trust is scheduled to dissolve and requires a plan for sale, and, from an unlikely source, he learns of another side to Elizabeth (who, comatose, is not present to account for it). Adapted from the 2007 novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, it’s a scenario ripe with passivity: things have just happened to Matt, a hollow center to the drama who’s now no longer able to coast through playing father to his two daughters, one a mouthy kid and the other a mildly rebellious teen. A born heavyweight through his family’s holdings but tending to quiet proficiency, he’s a Payne man caught flat-footed by changing circumstances and thorny opportunities.

The predictable sitcom brattiness of the younger daughter is only the most strident example of how Payne’s co-credited screenplay consistently curtails the film’s emotional reach. Striving for a broad embrace of its characters’ foibles, Descendants succeeds at conveying a sense of place and interconnectedness but ends up selling the audience short; attempts at character revelation, as when even the older daughter’s pothead friend turns out to harbor a freshly tragic past, feel dutiful even when played well. And it’s hard not to feel the female characters (especially Matt’s counterpart in Elizabeth’s adulterous secret life) are underserved as conceived, in a generally well-cast gallery that’s affectionately-yet-pointedly drawn nearly to death.

Jumping between Hoover’s rise, and his geriatric self-anthologizing, Eastwood’s era-toggling portrait has a tendency to rebuff the viewer’s investment, too: it’s drained of color, and often lashed to the lawman’s memoiristic filter, through a voiceover coming like an address from the congressional hearing in his head (and sometimes channeling Cheney). But this battle for perspective and jumpy time frames feel temperamentally suited to Hoover’s authoritarian caprices, and help the biographical sketch’s familiar aspects (such as a controlling mother, played by Judi Dench). Leonardo DiCaprio plays the storied G-man as a figure ever trying to prove himself to others and demonstrate responsible authority, the period settings sometimes feeling like his imagined projection, marked by anarchism, high-profile crime, and political maneuvering.

Behind the scenes Hoover sets into routine his speculated relationship with his number-two (played by Winkelvoss-borg Armie Hammer) without coming to terms with it—as fleshed out by Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay, which can surprise with its casual historical imagination but also disappoint with some shockingly lazy scenes and history-telling. But if Eastwood is able to sustain a pleasing puzzlement by spinning Hoover’s self-aggrandizing one-track myth, Payne’s sure sense of observation goes squandered in his latest film, perplexingly written and so often staged in such a way as to make the weird mess of personal crisis feel less real.