REVIEW ROUND-UP: Alexander Payne’s ‘The Descendants’ in Telluride

(Updated 9/3/2011 – 11:30AM CT)

The Telluride Film Festival kicked off today with a screening of Alexander Payne’s film The Descendants that was attended by Payne and the film’s star George Clooney. Clooney will be a Silver Medallion Award recipient at this year’s festival so it was appropriate that the Festival open with one the two films he has coming out this Fall (the other is The Ides of March, which opened the Venice Film Festival two days ago). The Descendants is the first film from Alexander Payne since his critically acclaimed 2004 film Sideways. The film is based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings and is about a family man who is forced to take on full family duties when his wife goes into a coma.

Reactions from the first screening of the film have been pouring in on Twitter and various movie sites and the word seems to be quite positive. This seems to be the first great reviewed film of the Festival circuit and could potentially be the first movie to emerge from the Festivals to become a real Oscar contender.

Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter boldly calls The Descendants Alexander Payne’s “best film yet.” He uses a lot of complimentary adjectives, but the one that keeps re-appearing is nuanced:

A major key to the film’s success are the nuances, fluctuating attitudes, loaded looks and tonal inflections among the main characters; the ensemble work is terrific. Despite her father’s admonitions, Alex continues to fling around dirty words, something then picked up by Scottie. Sid starts off seeming like a total dufus, always saying exactly the wrong thing, but even he gets a significant scene later on that completely changes the way he can be regarded.

Gregory Ellwood of HitFix agrees that the wait for Alexander Payne’s film was worth it. He reserves most of the praise for George Clooney and seems to agree with McCarthy that it is one of his best performances ever:

Many may have thought Clooney had a role of a lifetime in “Up in the Air” (a role very similar to his own persona), but he easily tops that in “Descendants.” Clooney wears King’s pain over his wife’s affair and his uneasiness on being a parent on his sleeve in subtle ways through almost every scene.  Many might have questioned if Clooney was worthy of being a two-time Academy Award winner for acting, but they won’t after seeing “Descendants.”

Kris Tapley of In Contention is in the minority in that he wasn’t too impressed by the effort. He like Clooney’s performance, but calls the film “Payne-lite”:

Yet there is something that feels somewhat diminished by the film’s cruising along a slighter path for so long before tying its themes up in an emotional way. While Payne mostly dodges “look-at-me” comedy strokes (save for going broad with actor Nick Krause once or twice too much), the main character’s central quest in the film — to confront the man who was sleeping with his now comatose wife — comes off so small for so long that the final payoff of catharsis feels slightly burdened.

Sasha Stone of Awards Daily writes one sentence that describes her feelings when she says “I loved this film.” She gives credit to both Payne and Clooney for striving so hard for honesty:

The sentimentality in it is disarming at times because it seems to come out of nowhere and lacks any chicken exit: some things are just too sad to make jokes about.  I so admire Payne and Clooney for diving right into that inescapable place of despair when someone close to us is dying.  How much easier it would have been for both of them to shy away from the more torturous moments.  Instead, they seem to want to find the truth of this story, of these characters.

Jeff Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere doesn’t get to his review right away, but has some good tweets about the film:

@wellshwood: “Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants”, a Hawaiian family drama about death and letting go and waking up, is deep and real and true to life.”

@wellshwood: “George Clooney’s performance as a beleagured, soon-to-be-widowed dad is touching, real, honest. He’s immediately in Best Actor contention.”

Peter DeBruge of Variety also heaps The Descendants with praise:

Some movies aim to distract us; others seek to help us understand. “The Descendants” tackles some of the prickliest issues a contempo family can face — coping with a loved one’s right-to-die decision — with such sensitivity that it’s hardly noticeable you’re being enlightened while entertained. As a Hawaiian father of two negotiating complex emotions while his wife lies comatose after a boating accident, George Clooney reveals yet another layer of himself.

Stay tuned for more reactions from Telluride coming soon!

Oscar Speculation

If these same reactions are echoed when the film plays in Toronto next week, there is no reason this is not a Best Picture contender. Alexander Payne has had good luck in the past and it sounds like he is at the top of his form, so he may score in the Best Director category as well. As for Clooney, he may as well be launched to the top of the Best Actor race right now because every review takes ample time to praise his work as a leading man. The Screenplay nomination is a given and there may be a Supporting Actress nomination in the cards for Shelley Woodward.

Other Fall 2011 Review Round-Ups:

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  • I loved Sideways, so I can’t wait to see this.

  • Asif Khan

    Sideways is one of my all time favorites :) and Up in the air was my favorite movie of 2009 .. so this movie is again one of the most anticipated movies of the year. great to have finally reached the time of the ear with good movies coming but i wish i had access to them like u guys living in States :'(

  • Have loved everything I’ve seen by Payne (still need to get to “About Schmidt”), so this is great, great news.

  • Hollywood Reporter still called the film an uphill climb for a Best Picture nomination and at least a few of the reviews are restrained. This was and I guess still is my early call as the frontrunner though. I still don’t think we’ve seen a home run at the festival circuit.

  • Calvin Philips

    I’m reading old FM articles and found “Shelley Woodward.” I can’t believe that you think she has a shot at a nomination against Adele D’Azim.

    • Haha, wow, that is really bad. I had thoughts about editing it when I first saw your comment, but I think I have to leave it…

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