Dr. Doug is easy to spot. Sitting coolly in the front row with one leg crossed over the other. Arms folded. Face amused, but not too amused. The camera cuts to his face whenever Billy Crystal makes a worthy crack. You can still hear your mom, sister, and probably brother gasp at this graying stallion of bachelorhood. But he deserves to be in the front row. George Clooney is one of the hardest workers in Hollywood and in 2011 he released two big films that (under the covers) deal with the same thing, but arrive at two very different results – The Ides of March and The Descendants. Both pictures take to task the difficulty in truly understanding another person and, most importantly, the scary rift between what happens when no one is watching and what happens when someone is.
The Ides of March assumes, like the numerous films that form its ancestry, the plausibility of a naive Democrat who will never play dirty. That is something to which many can relate. I remember someone older telling me, as a fifth grader with grand social ambitions pushing for a Gore presidency, that “everyone is a Democrat until they get their first paycheck.” Of course, I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but there might be some truth to it. This film imagines that same claim. Ryan Gosling portrays a baby Dem with pure wishes who “needs to believe in a cause” in order to make a move. It’s a tale of the Incest of the Left. Everyone floats somewhere between idealistic and cynical, usually representing both. Like Primary Colors and The American President did before, The Ides of March tells us little we didn’t already know. Instead, it elects to dish out Clooney’s political wet dream — a president who mandates two years of military service, has no religious conviction (but he respects yours!!!), and never plays dirty unless he knocks somebody up.
Directed by and co-starring Clooney, it is his predictable political antidote for the American Red/Right Infection from the very beginning. The first words of the film are “I am not a Christian. I am not an atheist.” As a whole, the film shares the same non-committal. Every character but Gosling’s is little more than a stepping stone. Visually, The Ides of March misses the methodical neatness of Good Night and Good Luck. Clooney’s directing and writing styles are capable and wide. He is clearly interested in wordy pictures that search for meaning inside, not on the surface. Luckily for him, he found a balanced talent in Ryan Gosling, who also had a promising year with Drive and this picture. His masculine sensitivity and smoothness recalls the old masters, harnessing the cool charm of Cary or Gary. His quiet charisma also recalls Clint. The sum Dashing-ness of Clooney and Gosling is rich. You’ll only need a couple bites of their cake, but it’s good.
Unfortunately, Ides does little to advance a committed ideology. The stakes are low and cool jazz is playing in the background while these characters talk. I’m unsure whether Clooney was seeking to make a good movie or a political statement. Either way, it only swallowed half of the glass. Whether it’s half full or half empty is your call.
The Descendants, on the other hand, was written and directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) with Clooney in his most masterful performance, deserving to defeat Dujardin’s silent romp. The story is smooth but not necessarily polite, detailing the wavy family dynamics of a grieving clan.
Though the two daughters are excellently played by a pair of talented young actresses, the real leading woman is Hawaii. While dealing with his comatose wife, Matt (Clooney) is also deciding whether or not to sell a large piece of inherited island property, enduring pressure from his cousins who are seeking to cash in. The Descendants uses the paradise for contrast. Matt even says in voiceover at the very beginning, “paradise can go fuck itself.” Indeed it does! The film walks the common contemporary line between tragedy and comedy, often seeking progress in visual contradiction and dramatic irony. Inside of these universes, everything does seem to be lined up for one character or family. In a way, they are becoming more Movie by trying to become less Movie, if you catch my drift.
But Descendants tries to understand more than that. We are allowed to inherit Matt’s difficulties and indecisions. No character gets a free pass. Even Sid, the bum tagalong, and Elizabeth’s father, the closest thing to total opposition, are given moments of earnest explanation. The people who populate this island habitat are imbued with the completion that other movies aren’t able to find. It doesn’t stop at the notion that the human experience is both comedy and tragedy, it actually builds that duality into each character, no matter how marginal. When everyone says “Elizabeth is a fighter. She’ll make it.” we are allowed to see their error and their effort. The film doesn’t only let us in on the joke.
Some of the best scenes are ones that sit in the gulf between our public selves and our private selves. The two big revelations about Elizabeth’s affair (one involving Alex and the other Mr. Speer) have so much energy and construct an exciting amount of audience instability. The scene at the Speer house is a twisty counterpoint involving the characters x 2 — the public self and the private self. It rolls to a gentle but uncomfortable climax and stands up to most any great scene in recent memory.
Clooney’s crinkled brow is just tired enough to never let us doubt his ability to pull through everything. In living through him, we are allowed to flirt with those moments of feeling that the movies can sometimes concoct. The Descendants is populated by complex, thoughtful characters and situations that feel so close and familiar even in these extraordinary circumstances.