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Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Descendants and The Muppets

The Descendants

There are few modern directors who I admire and enjoy as much as Alexander Payne. Before The Descendants, he only made 4 movies, but they add to quite a considerable achievement. After warming up with the very funny satire Citizen Ruth (1996), Payne perfected his comic timing in Election (1999), one of the best movies of one of the best years in modern cinema. He then added more humanity and heartbreak in About Schmidt (2002), and created another winner with the almost-great comedy-drama Sideways (2004).

After a 7 year hiatus, he's back with The Descendants, which is picking up great reviews and a lot of Oscar buzz. I'm sorry to say that it is, while definitely worth seeing, my least favorite of his films.

I came away from The Descendants thinking it was very enjoyable but also feeling let down that it was not more terrific. It's a comedy-drama (definitely leaning more towards the drama) about Matt King (George Clooney), a wealthy lawyer in Hawaii whose wife is in a coma. He then finds out she had been having an affair and, accompanied by his two daughters, vows to find this man.
There are so many great things about The Descendants that I'm still trying to figure out why I didn't like it more. As he did with Omaha in his first 3 movies, and with Santa Barbara in Sideways, Payne does a great job of providing an authentic setting with the Hawaii of this movie. It's beautiful, yes, but also a little odd and rough around the edges. It feels like a place where people really live. The cast is also uniformly excellent. Clooney is as good as ever, and the supporting performances are strong. Shailene Woodley is believeable and prickly as Clooney's troubled teenage daughter. My personal favorite was Judy Greer, who shows a lot of depth and emotion in just a couple key scenes.

So why didn't I like it more? To me, it seemed to be milking the sentiment a little too heavily, and I didn't feel like we quite got inside the characters enough to become fully invested. It's not giving too much away to say that Matt's wife is in a coma throughout the movie. What was she like? How did she act? We get clues, but don't really know. And yet she is a key part of most of the emotional scenes. I also felt like the subplot, about selling a piece of land in Hawaii, didn't quite connect enough to the main story or have enough emotional heft on its own.

All of this is not to say skip the movie. By all means see it. Alexander Payne is a talented director and there are many things to like about this movie. It just didn't meet by admittedly sky-high expectations.

Grade: B-

The Muppets

If there's a movie from the past few years where I smiled more, I don't know what it is. My wife, friend, and I saw this movie at 7:30 on a Friday night. The theater was probably about about 80% folks in their 20s and 30s. Are we a tad nostalgic?

The Muppets completely plays on the nostalgia of its older audience members. The concept of the movie is that the Muppets are now washed up (except for Ms. Piggy, now a Vogue editor), and have to come back together to save their old theater. Yes, the old "let's put on a show" plot, which the movie acknowledges with a gigantic wink.

The human friends of this movie are Jason Segal and Amy Adams. They are so wide-eyed, wholesome, fun, and game, that they fit right in with the Muppets. There is also an endearing new Muppet, Walter, who is the brother to Jason Segal's character.

It's hard to remember all the parts that made me smile and laugh, but they were plentiful. The movie struck just the right tone between sentiment, corny humor, and modern in-jokes. If you love the classic Muppet movies, you will definitely need to see this. It perhaps has a few too many plot points that don't get tied up as well as they should, but that's a small quibble for such an enjoyable movie.

Grade: B+

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