There might not be two filmmakers more diametrically opposed – but still operating in the same thematic wheelhouse – than Cameron Crowe and Alexander Payne. The former is warm and fuzzy; the latter is cold and spiky. However, their most recent pictures are both about newly-single dads struggling to raise their children in the aftermath of their wives’ deaths (or, as in the case of Payne’s The Descendants, her eternal comatose slumber). The hero of We Bought a Zoo grieves in the most Crowe-ian manner imaginable: by purchasing a wildlife reserve, rallying a small community together, and basically making the world a brighter place. I expected Crowe’s crowd-pleasing approach to be more heart-warming than Payne’s. But I never expected to find it more grounded in reality.
Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash (Dean Pelton from Community!) have adapted Kaui Hart Hemmings’ book of the same name here. We open with an almost-comically long narration from George Clooney’s Matt King, whose wife Elizabeth lies unconscious in a hospital bed following a disastrous water-skiing accident. Payne’s peerless Election also featured a hefty amount of narration (to brilliant effect), so it isn’t the choice to feature it that feels lazy. The problem is that the dialogue is so over-written it never sounds like anything this character – who we later get to know properly via Clooney’s haunted performance, and sans voice-over – would actually feel or say. The script later betrays Matt King several more times, lumping Clooney with the arduous task of delivering earnest speeches that belong, well, in a Cameron Crowe movie.
But back to the plot. The doctors don’t believe there’s any time left for Elizabeth, and as per her wishes, they’re going to pull the plug on her life support. Matt must travel across his native Hawaii on an unenviable mission to inform her father (Robert Forster), friends (Rob Huebel, Mary Birdsong), and worst of all, their daughters, the tweenage Scottie (Amara Miller) and the rebellious high schooler Alexandria (Shailene Woodley). The grieving is temporarily put aside when Alex drops a bombshell on Matt; specifically, about her mother’s cheating ways. The confounded Matt makes an executive decision and course-corrects from ‘alerting the loved ones’ to ‘hunting down the cad who made him a cuckold’.
It’s not that The Descendants doesn’t employ some of Payne’s favourite recurring elements or stylistic flourishes; it does, but it does so without much rhyme or reason. For every moving or darkly comic or genuinely surprising moment, there’s a cloying one close behind. A secondary storyline concerns Matt and his debt-ridden cousins brokering a deal to sell off a massive hunk of Hawaiian land they inherited from their royal ancestors. It seems to exist only so that Clooney may give a speech about the value of family and the inextricable bond they all have to the island near the conclusion. Ultimately, it’s just another plot point that doesn’t ring true.
I bought into the grieving process in We Bought a Zoo more than I did in The Descendants, and I don’t merely think it’s because Crowe is cuddly and Payne is alienating. In fact, he isn’t alienating here. He’s trying to be cuddly too. And it just doesn’t quite work. About Schmidt dealt with these similar themes far more subtly, darkly, comically, and tenderly. The Descendants often feels aloof, and other times outrageously saccharine. It’s saved – mostly – by the performances, specifically from Clooney, Woodley, Forster and the always-wonderful Judy Greer (who plays the wife of Elizabeth’s lover).
In Zoo – last time I mention it, I swear – there’s a recurring line about needing only twenty seconds of insane bravery to achieve something great. I’d rather watch the geeky kid put it all on the line and risk total embarrassment (as Crowe often does), than see the detached kid do it with half the conviction.
The Descendants arrives in Australian cinemas January 12, 2012.