The good news is, ladies… your dream man is available! And you have your choice of two! And they’re both successful, and they live in beautiful beach towns! The bad news is, how they became available is a really sad story. Actually, two really sad but similar stories.
Oh, and after years of being a passive parent, each one is now suddenly, reluctantly responsible for raising two kids, a rebellious teen and a difficult youngster, on his own.
Oh, and one of them still sees and converses with his dead wife, and the other’s wife isn’t technically dead yet.
Of course you are! You can’t even decide which one you’re more interested in. So let’s take George Clooney in The Descendants and Clive Owen in The Boys are Back and let ’em have at it for this special Gorgeous and Sensitive Widower with Kids Smackdown!
When The Descendants begins, Hawaii real estate lawyer Matt King (Clooney) has a couple of things on his plate. His large extended family, descendants of Hawaiian royalty, are pressuring him, as the chief trustee, to agree to sell a huge stretch of land they own that would enrich them all and piss off pretty much everyone else on the island. But this is instantly eclipsed when his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie, in the most thankless of roles) suffers a head injury during a boating accident that renders her comatose and kept alive by machines that her living will demands be shut off soon.
This all means that Matt can no longer be merely “the back-up parent, the understudy” (as his wry narration puts it). He must suddenly become more involved with his young daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) and her teenage sister Alex (Shailene Woodley), whom he collects from boarding school and finds ferociously hostile, particularly toward her mother, for reasons she eventually reveals: Elizabeth had been having an affair. Matt is blindsided, but his attempt to track down the home-wrecker and confront him sends the trio, along with Alex’s idiot boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), on a family-bonding adventure.
Joe Warr (Owen), a British sportswriter living in Australia, suddenly loses his lovely young wife Katy (Laura Fraser) to cancer, leaving him to raise six-year-old Artie (Nicholas McAnulty) by himself. Soon overwhelmed by Artie’s erratic behavior and trying to juggle running a household with his job, he brings in Harry (George MacKay), his son from another marriage, a typically rebellious and lazy teen who remains bitter toward Joe for abandoning him and his mother for his second wife. Joe strikes up a friendship with fellow single-parent Laura (Emma Booth) that verges on romance, but she soon grows fed up as he starts to overly rely on her. It’s up to Joe to take responsibility as a parent and adult, which means he should probably stop conversing with Katy’s ghost at some point and clean the house.
The Boys are Back is inspired by the true story of Simon Carr and was directed by Scott Hicks, a go-to guy for prestige-piece adaptations, best known for Shine (1996), which catapulted Geoffrey Rush to worldwide fame and Oscar glory. This one, on the other hand, got lukewarm reviews and disappeared seemingly within moments of release. What happened? Woefully under-appreciated, or deservedly ignored?
A mere two days after seeing The Boys are Back, barely a moment of it has stayed with me. It has the thinnest excuse for a plot imaginable, stock characters and very little point beyond the difficulty of being a single, working dad. The kids’ performances are impressive, but speaking as a big Clive Owen fan, I just never quite bought him in the role. In every scene that calls upon him to laugh playfully as he goofs around with rambunctious little Artie, squirt-gun fighting with him and whatnot, his laughter sounds forced and hollow, which stands to reason, because Clive Owen simply isn’t a squirt-gun-fighting-with-the-kids kinda guy. Clive Owen should be out shooting bad guys and dealing blackjack in a tux and coolly smoking cigarettes and getting lap dances from Natalie Portman. This just feels wrong. But beyond the casting, the whole thing is basically just flimsy TV-movie fare; it disappeared from theaters mainly because it didn’t really belong in them in the first place.
Whereas, The Descendants, I’m pleased to report, is quite deserving of all the hype it’s getting as one of the year’s best films. It’s also a welcome return for director/co-writer Alexander Payne, who tends to take his time between features, this being only his fifth in 15 years, but the results have generally been worth the wait (2002’s sluggish and mean-spirited About Schmidt being the sole disappointment). This one is arguably his best yet.
The source this time is a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, but as usual, Payne (sharing script credit with Nat Faxon & Jim Rash) makes the material distinctly his own, infusing it with his distinct brand of wry pathos and offbeat humor. I’ve seen reviews and print ads calling the film “hilarious,” which strikes me as a bit over the top; the one purely comic character, Sid, is so cartoonishly stupid that it strains credibility; at one point, he laughs out loud at an old woman’s senility and is surprised when her husband (a memorably surly Robert Forster) takes offense. Admittedly, the movie is wittier and more (for want of a better word) “fun” than this subject matter would be in just about anyone else’s hands, but I don’t recall any actual big laughs, so I don’t advise going in seeking them. But it is a very touching, tender-hearted film, the soul of it being Matt and Alex’s relationship, gradually and credibly evolving from antagonists to cohorts and pals as they track down the elusive cuckolder, a role that makes the most of Matthew Lillard’s inherent smarminess.
Meanwhile, the land-related subplot serves as an effective counterpoint to the grim main storyline and provides a lovely supporting role for the ever reliable Beau Bridges. There’s also a luminous surprise in the second half in the form of the great Judy Greer as Lillard’s wife, making a basically sweet, likable character so vivid and believable that you want her to branch off into her own movie. Expect Oscar nominations for both her and Clooney, who blows his rather indifferent work in The Ides of March right off the map with this subtle, wholly sympathetic performance that holds the movie together and culminates in a final scene with his wife that it would take a heart of stone not to be moved by.
There’s using a family tragedy to catalyze your plot, and then there’s simply letting the family tragedy be your plot. “Man loses wife and is left raising kids” is admittedly a thin premise for a film, and if you don’t take the idea any further than that, you get the lazy, shrug-inducing The Boys are Back. But for The Descendants, that’s just the starting point, and it takes the idea in fresh, unusual directions that lead to one memorable, unexpected moment after another. Its crisp writing, understated direction, superb performances and guaranteed tears that are honestly earned and not jerked make this an easy TKO. Like I even need to say it: The Descendants is our winner.