TIFF11 Reviews: Alexander Payne’s The Descendants , Butter


We’re still well behind on our reviews from the weekend, but we wanted to jump ahead and review The Descendants, the long-awaited return of Sideways director Alexander Payne, this time collaborating with George Clooney on a film set in Hawaii, as well as another quirky comedy simply called Butter, starring Jennifer Garner.

We should have a slew of other reviews in the next 24 hours as well.

The Descendants (Fox Searchlight – November 18)
Directed by Alexander Payne; Written by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Nick Krause, Amara Miller, Mary Birdsong, Rob Huebel, Patricia Hastie
Rating: 7.5/10

It’s been seven long years since Alexander Payne wowed critics and audiences alike with his Oscar-winning movie “Sideways,” forcing the fans of his eclectic storytelling style to wait patiently until he found the next project he wanted to do, and he finally found it in this adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel about loss and recovery.

Set entirely in Hawaii, George Clooney plays Matt King, a lawyer who’s been entrusted with a large portion of undeveloped land on one of the islands of Hawaii. As the film opens, his wife Liz has been in a horrible boating accident (shown off screen) leaving her in a coma and Clooney provides a first person voice-over to get the viewer up to speed in a letter Matt’s written to his wife. The incident leaves Matt having to care for his two daughters, the younger Scottie (Amara Miller) and the troubled teen daughter Alex, played by Shailene Woodley, the latter who reveals to Matt that his wife has been having an affair. With Matt having to make the decision whether to pull the plug and Liz potentially having only a few days to live, he decides to seek out her lover to let him know of her eventual passing. His daughters and Alex’s good-natured boyfriend Sid (Nick Kruse) go along for the journey.

This sort of quest harks back to Payne’s earlier film “About Schmidt” but also has touches of films like “Little Miss Sunshine” and “The Savages” which create situations which force several dysfunctional people to work together towards the same ends.

George Clooney is as good as always, though we may have reached a point where it’s hard for one to tell a good Clooney performance from a bad one. Let’s face it, Clooney’s characters rarely diverge too far away from his own personality even if he’s dressed differently, and while he downplays his natural charisma, he still has a few moments that reflect the visual humor he’s done for the Coens. Just as Clooney’s performance in “Up in the Air” was as memorable for his interactions with Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, in “The Descendants,” he has a very talented newcomer in Shailene Woodley, playing a teenager far wiser than her years, who seems to effortlessly keep pace with Clooney in terms of the drama.

On the other hand, the efforts to introduce humor aren’t quite as fluid, maybe because it’s a dry and subdued humor that doesn’t quite succeed in the same way as some of Payne’s previous movies. Having those scenes done for comedy also impedes emotions in the more dramatic scenes, making them seem somewhat false and forced.

Some of the funniest scenes that do work involve Nick Krause’s Sid, who finds a way to get on Matt’s nerves to great effect. Some of the stronger dramatic scenes involve Robert Forster as Liz’s father and Judy Greer’s as the wife of Matt’s competition. With just two short scenes each, they offer up the moments in the film that have as great an emotional impact as some of the ones in “Sideways.”

Throughout their quest to find Liz’s lover, it does get back to Matt’s secondary dilemma, the sale of his ancestor’s lands as he meets with various cousins, including one played by Beau Bridges. Payne uses Matt’s travels to explore Hawaii in a similar travelogue-like narrative as he did in “Sideways” with the California wine country, as Matt and his extended family look for his wife’s lover. The islands give the film a very distinctive look and feel with Phedon Papamichael (who also shot Clooney’s own movie “The Ides of March”) taking full advantage of the environment with gorgeous establishing shots. On the other hand, Payne’s use of Hawaiian music does get a bit frustrating at times.

There’s a lot going on in “The Descendants” and possibly a few too many ideas to keep everyone fully engaged for every single second, but it generally has the same mix of lightness and depth of Payne’s past films even if the material doesn’t feel nearly as strong. Even so, one would have to imagine “The Descendants” is far better with Payne’s involvement than the source material may have ever allowed from another filmmaker.

Butter (The Weinstein Company)
Directed by Jim Field Smith; Written by Jason Micallef
Starring Jennifer Garner, Hugh Jackman, Alicia Silverstone, Ty Burrell, Yara Shahidi, Ashley Greene, Olivia Wilde
Rating: 8/10

One might think a comedy about competitive butter carving would be fairly banal–that was certainly my thought when I first heard about this new movie directed by Jim Field Smith of last year’s “She’s Out of My League”–but in fact, Butter” is very much like the type of comedy Alexander Payne used to make back when he was starting out – dark and edgy humor that plays with religion and politics without necessarily playing up to the audience one might expect, which in this case would be those in the rural areas of the Midwest.

When we first meet Jennifer Garner’s Laura Pickler, she’s in fact running for Governor of Iowa, but a year earlier, she was merely the supportive wife of Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell), the 15-time state butter carving champion. When he decides to retire his knife, she steps up to enter the annual contest, but she has some competition in Destiny, a young black orphan who has just been placed with her latest foster parents, played by Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone, who has a natural skill for butter carving and decides to enter the contest. With his wife getting into his turf, Bob goes to a strip club and encounters Olivia Wilde’s Brook, who sees a potential “sugar daddy” before they’re caught in the act by Laura.

Jennifer Garner’s character takes a bit of getting used to since she’s playing a character so driven that she acts like a complete b*tch for much of the film. Then again, we can easily look at Reese Witherspoon’s character in Payne’s “Election” as a jumping off point for Laura. At times, Garner’s in danger of being overshadowed by young Yara Shahidi, whose portrayal of the precocious 10-year-old underdog is one that audiences should really enjoy.

Even so, it’s Olivia Wilde’s hilarious portrayal of Brooke, a quirky foul-mouthed character who dresses provocatively but rides a bicycle way too small, which steals almost every scene in which she appears. With money owed from Bob for “services rendered,” Brooke enters the butter-sculpting contest just to get under Laura’s skin. Wilde’s digs at Garner and her support of Destiny in the inevitable rematch is what gives this film its edge.

Bob and Laura’s daughter Kaitlen (Ashley Greene) is instantly smitten with Brooke and wants to be just like her, though that’s a fairly minor subplot in the grand scheme of things. The fourth contestant in the county competition is Kristen Schaal, a crazed fan of Bob’s who makes up for her lack of talent with enthusiasm.

It’s really great to see all the women in the cast getting the best jokes as Burrell plays down his own ability to get laughs. Hugh Jackman shows up midway through the movie as Laura’s car salesman lover Boyd Bolton, who she has convinced to help her sabotage. He has a number of funny scenes, but just seeing him in a cowboy hat talking to God is more than enough.

There are a lot of really funny visual gags as well, and though it plays with some of the religious fanaticism one might find in places like Iowa, it’s really a fairly simple and straight-forward competition comedy that’s much more entertaining and endearing than one might imagine from the premise.

We have a lot more reviews to come… so stay tuned!