Pauline Kael famously stated that great films are rarely perfect films. Do we ever wonder about the opposite? Are perfect films rarely great films?
As the ultimate easy swallow, The Descendants, the latest release from Sideways writer/director Alexander Payne, has been practically pieced together by magical gold statuettes in the advanced laboratory of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It’s been, why, since last year that a film has been so deliciously and deviously designed for the award season. How many characters get a crying scene in this juicy monument to weeping and sobbing and sniffling? I lost count, but the answer is, too many.
And yet, there are real positive qualities to be found in this story of a middle-aged Hawaiian lawyer (George Clooney) dealing with a lucrative family land sale, two rebellious daughters, and the adultery of a wife who now lay dying in a coma. The New York Times critic A. O. Scott has pinpointed the virtues of the film – a pleasant pace unruffled by plot, sharply written, with a richness of generosity for its imperfect characters in an imperfect world. I will see Scott and raise him Payne’s successful balance of the family dynamic between love and cynicism, a feat that often eludes quality filmmakers. For a long time, these strong virtues had me singing aloha.
But where does all this perfection lead us? To such hard-earned lessons as: a cheating spouse can produce a wealth of good and bad feelings. You shouldn’t put a price on a family legacy. Man, can our families, no matter how gosh-darn difficult, help us through hard times. On the invisible artistic scale between reassuring and challenging, this one leans heavily on the side of the former. The Descendants might be a perfect film. It is also a cuddly kitten of conventional wisdom.