A mild mannered NBC page goes from zero to hero, making hit shows and makings hits at the same time. A slightly schlubby puppeteer struggles both with his art, his lust for an elusive female co-worker, and his fascination with the portal into the head of another man. A self-aware introvert travels back through his most recent relationship and starts to understand the fallacy of his own romantic mind. These three characters do not share the actors who played them or even the directors who guided them, but they do share two things: a writer, named Charlie Kaufman, and a unique sense of delusion. As Freud would put it, a delusion of grandeur, to the extent where such delusions affect the way that each characters’ story is told, in terms of aesthetics and structure. In George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) leads a double life where, by day, he’s producing shows like The Newlywed Game and by night he’s making hits for the CIA; but Barris’s story, told from his perspective, is so bizarre the audience is thrust into a hyper-stylized fantasy where one is not quite able to tell if he is telling the truth. Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich presents “objectivity” as a deliberately absurdist comedy, playing the concept itself and deconstructing the romanticized “genius” in the form of Craig Schwartz (John Cusack). Lastly, in Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) is so deep set in his introversion, that when he finally is given the opportunity to explore his own memories, he is able to see them for what they are. These are tied together by Kaufman’s singular ability to tap into the cult of the genius and deconstruct what that entails through storytelling, as well as each respective director’s ability to channel those ideas through a visual format.
Making a good dramedy, or even black comedy, is not a science. Although, when watching them, one feels that it should be. Balancing out the drama and the comedic timing is often imperfect, but films like Gran Torino get away with it without pushing the audience way because it is not “serious enough”. It ends up being both impactful in an emotional aspect as well as a humorous one. The subject matter is also up for grabs, for as long as there is good writing and better acting, they can get away with murder (see: Fargo). Alexander Payne, whose last film was the critically acclaimed Sideways in 2004 which I have not seen) and before that About Schmidt (which I have seen), likes deadpan, dark humor. Probably a bit darker than even one of the darkest of comedies, Withnail and I. That means his films can often be a hit or a miss with viewers.
Here, Payne tries to balance the nuance of drama and the absurdity of comedy in The Descendants, whose working title could have been “White People Problems Starring George Clooney as a Handsome White People”. It is a family drama, one that begins with Clooney’s wife in the hospital after a water skiing accident and leads into Clooney learning he has been, as in all interesting familial dramas since Shakespeare’s Othello, cuckolded. His journey not only involves confronting the man with whom his wife cheated on, but also telling various family members of his wife’s now terminal condition and that, according to her will, she wants the plug to be pulled. The journey is taken with Clooney, whose character name is Matt King, as well as with his 17 year old daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley), his 10 year old daughter (Amara Miller), and this dopey kid Alex knows Sid (Nick Krause). All the while, King, who is the sole trust owner of 25,000 acres of Hawaiian land that his ancestor had as her dowry, must decide to whom he must sell this humungous plot.
It all goes down in rather dramatic fashion. That, right there, is one of the main problems. Not only is it sometimes terribly melodramatic, there’s barely a hint of comedy in the film. That is not always because it is not in the screenplay, but the comedic timing of both the director as well as the actors is so poor, they can manage to turn something that could have been highly amusing into something middling and unintentionally annoying. There is no balance here. There is no contrast of the dark drama of human life against the absurdity of it manifested as humor, unlike, say, Woody Allen’s ambitious “comedy up against drama” film Crimes and Misdemeanors. Granted, that film is broader in its comedic format, but even the Coen Brothers, who’ve mastered the art of dark comedy, made something insane and dark like Burn After Reading into something hilarious.
Maybe it is because that the two aforementioned directors (or three, depending on who’s counting) are superb screenwriters, legendary for their wit, pathos, and dialogue. The dialogue in this film comes to a screeching halt. It’s almost as if the actors were not only speaking in clichés, which would have been bad enough, but had been taking them directly from Lifetime Movies. Lines as hard hitting like, “You really have no clue, do you?” and “It’s obvious, isn’t it?” and the tender, “I love my family; I love my wife!” pepper the film’s uninteresting yet relentless melodramatic scenario. That being said, the use of voiceover is actually nice. Creating that kind of nuance and introspection that the films of Charlie Kaufman have been able to do, Clooney’s voice over is calm and nice to listen to. But, like all good things, it does not last. It barely takes up 20 minutes of the film, and thus comes off as inconsistent. The voiceover never actually returns. Regardless of it being presented in the present tense, this inconsistency seems kind of lazy.
Clooney’s performance is nuanced enough so that you can see all the stress etched into his face and his eyes. But because one can normally rely on him having some sort of comedic timing, such as in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy, his almost brute unfunniness is a shock and even a bit jarring. You often see him looking down at his shorts to something, contemplating why bad things happen to good people. The problem being, it takes too long for the film to get going for the audience to actually care about his situation. However, his performance, generally speaking, is very good. Just not great.
Shailene Woodley plays an angsty teenager, which is to say, to some extent, playing a character that is completely derivative. Her performance is unoriginal and unenticing. Being a regular on the ABC Family melodrama/teen soap The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Woodley is used to playing this archetype and also well acquainted with the concept of turning on the water works. Again, if only we (or I) cared.
Yes, the film covers a rather dramatic subject matter. But it all seems so trite and lazily done. There is to enough pathos in the film to render it believable or worthy, and it instead comes off as a movie about rich white people problems. With the cinematography being occasionally ostentatious (oh, hey, let’s punctuate each scene transition with pretty Hawaiian landscapes), the acting being pretty lacking with the exception of Clooney, and the dialogue being completely ridiculous, it’s kind of shocking how far off the rails this film went, when it could have been a moving, funny, and intimate portrait of a family going through a tremendous loss with scattered moments of humor. It ended up just being depressing, halfhearted, and lackluster.
It seems that politics, more than any other subject, is absolute fodder for filmmakers who want to critique culture or create some sort of relevant commentary. From The Manchurian Candidate to The Great Dictator to Wag the Dog, directors not only love to look at the corrupt state of government by imbuing its characters with absurd stereotypes but they also love to expose the cunning wit that politicians have. They’re smooth talkers and they’re supposed to be. Just take a look at the iconic speech that Chaplin gives at the end of The Great Dictator, lampooning Hitler a couple years before World War II had actually begun.
George Clooney joins the band of merry satirists in a darker fashion, trying to create and emulate suspense more along the lines of The Manchurian Candidate, and, to some extent, Coppola’s The Conversation. Playing a governor and almost presidential candidate just prior to a Democratic Primary in Ohio, Clooney, who directed and co-wrote The Ides of March, isn’t even at the front line of the film. It’s Ryan Gosling, the debonair, smart, young, and very qualified campaign advisor Stephen Meyers, working separate but next to Mike Morris’ (Clooney) official campaign manager Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).
The competition between Mike Morris and Arkansas Senator Ted Pullman (Michael Mantell) is close and tense, and throughout the film, you’re never quite sure who’s leading. Logistically, it only matters insofar that we know that Morris is a nice guy, just like Clooney, and we root for him initially. We want him to win, just like Clooney, were he to run for President. He’s a swell, logical guy.
Gosling’s Stephen is just as swell, but he’s harder on the outside and more ambiguous. He makes the statement that, despite whatever the statistics of Morris’ campaign, he will do what he does if he believes in it, not merely to win, in comparison to Zara. We can thus assume that, regardless of how many campaigns he’s actually been a part of, he’s rather naïve. He’s slightly disillusioned about Marisa Tomei’s New York Times correspondent Ida and whether or not she’s an actual “friend”. To what extent can he trust her is something that pops up throughout the film every so often. He plays the character well, with finesse, like he has with his previous roles in Crazy, Stupid, Love and Drive. He uses that same charm, but he knows, and we know, that it’s not the same character.
The point of this morality play, which is based on co-screenwriter Beau Willimon’s Farragut North, is to observe the moral ambiguity in politics. The idea is nothing new. Even the aspect of the character study is not new. Maybe that’s the problem with the film. It’s not new or fresh, despite the very contemporary setting and the feeling that Barack Obama is watching behind you and will resent you if you don’t like it. Moral ambiguity is usually a key point in political thrillers. What one candidate will do or not do to win or get the advantage is the drama, and here it plays very predictably. The center though, is not the candidate himself, but the advisor.
Meyers, while doggedly “married” to the campaign makes the dangerous mistake of acting on a phone call from the opposing team and visiting the opposing side’s own campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). From there, you have your drama. To what extent is Stephen Meyers still that honest, likable, charming guy; the one who can easily bed the sexy intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) and still be seen as the cool guy on campus. But his weakness is ambition. His ambition is his downfall, as, typically, he’s not as honest as he presents himself. It’s his ambition that propels him to see Giamatti, just to see if they can pay better, if the payoff allows for more power.
Its direction is fine, but the dialogue is, thankfully, interesting. If anything, it does make one wonder why the screenwriters and playwrights who pen these contemplative and methodical works don’t run for office themselves. They seem to have a good grip on what’s going on and can articulate the solutions well enough to sound convincing coming from the mouth of an actor playing a candidate. What the characters say, primarily the political ones spark the ongoing debate within the audience’s mind about the honesty of politics or lack thereof.
The title is reminiscent of those tragic Greek plays, but most reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The voting day for the Democratic Primary is, you guessed it March 15th, otherwise known as the Ides of March, the same day that Caesar was so iconically betrayed and murdered by Brutus and 60 other co-conspirators. Metaphorically, Meyers is, of course, Brutus with Morris as Caesar. However, perhaps to the disappointment of Clooney, it never seems as tragic as the play. It’s a bummer, somewhat of an accident on Meyers’ part, but it’s not tragic.
The screenplay is strong, but this is one of the few films that I would have preferred seeing on the stage. The characters are far more important and the constant switch in setting, as contemporary and “relevant” as they seem is actually distracting. It’s trying to be directed more like a film than like a stage play, but there’s no balance between the transition from one medium to the other. The politics are interesting, but the moral ambiguity of its characters is less interesting than you would think, even with Clooney at the head. You walk out with your mental ballot only being half punched through.