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Review: The Descendants, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Young Adult

By February 9, 20122 Comments

The Descendants posterI really enjoyed Alexander Payne’s The Descendants – at least while I was watch­ing it. Some films will do that to you, though. They push all sorts of groovy but­tons while you are in the room but they dimin­ish as you re-examine them. Connections that you thought were there turn out to be illus­ory, a series of sat­is­fy­ing emo­tion­al moments don’t cohere into some­thing com­plete and you real­ise that you were enjoy­ing it so much you wished it into some­thing profound.

I blame Clooney. He’s such a watch­able pres­ence, always com­bin­ing that Cary Grant movie star-ness with an under­ly­ing emo­tion­al frailty. His char­ac­ters carry that square-jawed aspir­a­tion­al male solid­ity but rarely do they actu­ally know what is going on or what to do. He spe­cial­ises in people who are mak­ing it up as they go along and that has tre­mend­ous appeal – if George Clooney doesn’t know what he’s doing then none of us do.

In The Descendants, Clooney’s per­form­ance papers over the cracks in a story of a priv­ileged Hawai’i law­yer forced to con­front some big human issues. His wife is in a coma from a jet-ski acci­dent, he can’t seem to get through to his two daugh­ters and – to make mat­ters worse from his point of view – he was being cuck­olded by a real estate agent.

Individual scenes provide enough sur­prises and wry obser­va­tions to seem fresh, the non-Clooney per­form­ances range from fine (Shailene Woodley as the teen­age daugh­ter) to ter­rif­ic (Robert Forster as the father-in-law) and the screen­play by Payne and Nat Faxon has some won­der­ful moments. I think my main prob­lem is a res­ol­u­tion that sees Clooney’s char­ac­ter hav­ing made a decision and learnt some­thing – but it’s not clear exactly what.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo posterDavid Fincher’s US remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is spir­ited and styl­ish com­mer­cial film­mak­ing in ser­vice of some fairly objec­tion­able sub­ject mat­ter. Daniel Craig plays embattled cru­sad­ing pub­lish­er Mikael Blomqvist, giv­en a way out of his fin­an­cial hole via an offer from Christopher Plummer’s wealthy indus­tri­al­ist pat­ri­arch. He enlists the help of goth hack­er Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara from The Social Network) and between them they turn into a 21st cen­tury Batman and Robin, fight­ing vil­lains who aren’t only seri­al killers but are also Nazis. Sheesh.

I hated the ori­gin­al ver­sion. I thought it had no redeem­ing fea­tures that could com­pensate for the unpleas­ant­ness. This ver­sion – screen­play by Steven Zaillian – tells the story more clearly, sets up the con­text for Blomqvist’s troubles and renders the “romance” between Blomqvist and Salander as cred­ible. I’ve come to really respect Fincher’s work as a dir­ect­or, elev­at­ing aver­age source mater­i­al and really nail­ing the good stuff like The Social Network. I just wish he had bet­ter taste in projects.

Young Adult posterYoung Adult is the second in – what I hope will be – Jason Reitman’s tri­logy of films about the empti­ness of mod­ern American life. Despite the pres­ence of Diablo Cody as screen­writer it feels much more like Up In the Air than Juno, as a cent­ral char­ac­ter real­ises that all of the assump­tions they had made to get them through life were not just false but act­ively not helping.

Charlize Theron, who won an Oscar for seri­al killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, plays anoth­er mon­ster: Mavis Gary is a mod­er­ately suc­cess­ful author on the skids, return­ing to her dead-end small town home to try and win back her High School sweet­heart (Patrick Wilson) and return to the glory days when she was Queen of All She Surveyed. But Wilson is hap­pily mar­ried with a new baby and the only guy actu­ally listen­ing to Mavis is the former High School geek Patton Oswalt who has his own reas­ons for get­ting blotto every night.

Cody’s verbal vir­tu­os­ity is largely held in check here but the char­ac­ters are rich and their lives por­trayed with sin­cer­ity. Theron proves that he still has the chops des­pite not hav­ing a lead­ing role since the awful Hancock nearly four years ago. Young Adult also has the added qual­ity of only being 94 minutes long – just enough to tell the story and get the heck out. If only more films heeded that lesson.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 25 January, 2012.

Postscript: After I sent this off to the paper I remembered that Jason Reitman’s first fea­ture was Thank You For Smoking which would make Young Adult the third in that tri­logy. So, as you were.