In the sharply tuned rom-dram-com Crazy, Stupid, Love (currently on Blu-ray and DVD) our sad sap of a hero Cal Weaver (Steve Carell) remarks – while lamenting the disintegration of his marriage after his wife (Julianne Moore) reveals she’s been cheating – that no one ever seems to use the word “cuckold” any more. But that’s what he is. A cuckold.
In Alexander Payne’s shockingly bleak and depressing dram-dram-com The Descendants (currently in theaters) Matt King (George Clooney) is a cuckold, too, only his cheating wife is left in a coma after a freak accident.
Both films feature nice, good-hearted, middle-aged guys desperately trying to hold their families together and feature kids in uncomfortable situations…but Crazy, Stupid, Love mines for laughs while The Descendants mines for gold (Oscar gold). They also both feature a bevy of “Only in Hollywood” scenarios that couldn’t be farther from how real people deal with problems. Only in a Hollywood movie like The Descendants (parading as an independent film) would our hero be a Hawaiian land baron, who also happens to give some of the worst expository voice-over narration in recent memory. Only in a Hollywood movie like Crazy, Stupid, Love (which in so many odd yet endearing ways comes across as American Beauty re-imagined as a sitcom) would our hero meet a guy at a bar (played by Ryan Gosling) who teaches him how to pick-up women, among which is a wild teacher played with hilarious aplomb by Marisa Tomei. Oh yeah, Emma Stone is in Crazy, Stupid Love, too, as a sassy but kind lawyer-to-be – and she’s smokin’-hot and a riot. Both films have some talented kid actors, and The Descendants has some guy giving Keanu Reeves a run for his money (quick – sign Nick Krause to that Bill & Ted remake). This moron provides the Payne film with its only laughs.
And the Payne film is a pain to sit through. Alexander Payne is delivering his first film since Sideways (one of my favorite dram-dram-coms of all-time) – but The Descendants descends in awkward lurches full of elitist literary clichés (please – the guy’s wife is dying and he’s in the midst of the most important land deal decision of his life involving his family’s ancestral Hawaiian lands?) that make it abundantly clear this was adapted from what I can only hope was a more fleshed-out (though probably equally as unrealistic) novel. It’s easy to see why critics have swooned over this one (Clooney does deliver a masterfully textured performance playing a man seething with anger but quietly holding it together on the surface) as we all want Payne to feel encouraged to make more films more often – but please, man, don’t make them as depressing and out of tune as this. In fact, in hindsight, Jason Reitman (the king of dram-dram-coms like Juno and Up in the Air) was doing a pretty damn good job filling Payne’s shoes during Payne’s long absence. Essentially The Descendants’ big lesson is that living in paradise isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and misery thrives on beautiful tropical islands. Gee, thanks for the big insight! People can have problems anywhere – duh! Well, I guess life anywhere isn’t easy for a cuckold – even one who is land baron. And to top it off – there were too many manipulative scenes of “saying goodbye” that were the complete opposite of cathartic. I left the theater feeling turned upside down (I would’ve killed for sideways!) for no good reason.
Which is why Crazy, Stupid, Love – a throwaway pick from my Netflix queue I vaguely recall getting good notices when it came and went from theaters over the summer – came blowing in like a breath of fresh air behind The Descendants. I was surprised at how well it played with many of the same themes but in a more pleasing (albeit manufactured) way. Sure, it was a bit disjointed at first and slow to build its amiability, but I liked how they brought the two disparate story-lines of Carrell and Emma Stone together – and I like how they weren’t afraid to play up the ridiculousness of the climax for laughs. It felt good to laugh after that awful vacation in Hawaii. And for the first time in many films, I didn’t hate Steve Carell. He’s good at this dramedy stuff (remember Dan in Real Life?) and he makes the perfect cuckold.
Every instinct of my critical soul (married to art – not Hollywood!) tells me The Descendants is the better film than Crazy, Stupid Love. My heart tells me it’s simply not. But just as both movies prove, it’s okay to cheat sometimes.
Written by David H. Schleicher
Well I can’t speak to The Descendents, but I agree with your assessment of Crazy Stupid Love. I thought it was a fun if not terribly deep movie. I remember laughing quite a bit. And where you liked Carrell after so many recent disappointments, I didn’t hate Julianne Moore. (I know I’m in the minority, but I don’t think all that much of her.) But I actually enjoyed her in this one. Of course Ryan Gosling was a highlight for me, but he and Emma Stone were great together. And I don’t know what was wrong with me, but I SO didn’t see that twist coming at the end, but in retrospect it should have been crazy stupid obvious.
Jason – LOL, I didn’t see the twist coming either, and yes, Gosling and Stone had great chemistry. –DHS
Aha! Yet another witty review from you David. I loved reading it and will probably stay away from both movies. CSL was a runaway hit in India — and I ran-away from it.
Cool parting shot: “But just as both movies prove, it’s okay to cheat sometimes.”
Prakash – CSL is funny, but I wouldn’t go singing its praises from the mountaintops. That’s interesting it was a hit in India – I didn’t think American comedies traveled very well, but I guess some do. As for The Descendants, I feel it’s the year’s most overrated film. –DHS
I just saw “The Descendants” yesterday. Maybe it’s just me, but depressing seems to be what Payne does, so that this one had an overall melancholy to it didn’t necessarily surprise me. With that expectation in mind, I actually found “The Descendants” to be almost uplifting in certain regards, at least compared to some of his other work.
To ruin some of it for those who haven’t seen it (consider yourselves duly warned):
If one of the main through-lines was the redemption of his place as a father to his girls, the movie progresses into some oddly positive territory, while still dwelling in those dark places that Payne likes to go (stalking the “other guy”, for example).
While the whole family certainly goes through hell and back, there’s something triumphant in the mundanity of that final shot. He went from someone who never spent time with his daughters alone to that unspoken and unforced interaction that we see at the end.
It’s not a perfect movie and I think you hit some of its weaknesses appropriately. I read a screenwriting book that said to lay out all of your necessary coincidences in the first act, but even so, “The Descendants” stretches the limits of that rule with boating accident, land transaction, etc… And, while I’d probably disagree, I can see how someone might feel that there might be one too many “farewell” scenes.
Still, as always, reading your estimations of a movie is always a pleasure and you’ve given me greater motivation to find “Crazy, Stupid Love”.
Also, sorry to be so contrarian on an older post, but I distinctly remember this one being on the receiving end of “most disappointing” on your year-end list so I couldn’t help but track down your review after seeing it last night.
Julio – Payne does “painfully realistic comedy/drama” verging on satire very well as witnessed in his first four films. This, to me, was just outright depressing and I was hard-pressed to find any reason to care about these spoiled, rich people. Yes, we can all learn a little bit about suffering as we all suffer and face down loss – but in the context of a disconnected land-baron and his spoiled daughters (and comatose wife) – I actually felt a bit insulted. This was, and still is, a huge disappointment in my book as Payne is usually so cutting-edge and on the money with his observations. The acting was good – and I guess even Payne’s direction was okay – I fault mostly the material. All of your observations of the film seem spot-on in that I think they were the film’s intentions – I just found it difficult to care. –DHS
That’s understandable. Again, it’s not a movie without its flaws. I personally felt that the movie overcame the possible disconnect based on the socioeconomic standing of the family. Probably because I perceived the kids being messed up as less a result of being over-indulged as being under-parented.
Then again, I think I’ve developed an immediate sympathy for movies about remorseful parenting that may border on bias. 🙂
Julio – coming at it from the parenting angle I can see how you might’ve connected it with it more. Thanks as always for your keen insights. –DHS
“I perceived the kids being messed up as less a result of being over-indulged as being under-parented.” I would agree with Julio’s observation. One of my favorite lines in the film was Cloney stating about money, “I want my kids to have enough to do something; but not enough to do nothing”. I think the “theme” of the film was to remind the audience that every decision a person makes, whether good or bad, has a ripple effect on their families, friends and even total strangers. I enjoyed the film, as I enjoy all Cloney films, but I do not feel it is really Oscar worthy. But, the message is well worth the price of a ticket!
Eh, I guess maybe that was the point of it – still didn’t like the movie, though. –DHS