The Descendants, Payne at his best; The Sitter, Green at his worst

by Mark Burger

Filmmaker Alexander Payne specializes in grown-up comedies that are strong on character (Election, Sideways, About Schmidt), and his latest film The Descendants ( ) is no exception. It’s a seamless combination of comedy and drama, a superb adaptation of the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings and one of the year’s best movies.

The story centers around Matt King (George Clooney), a middle-aged businessman on the verge of a huge real-estate deal in his native Hawaii. What might be Matt’s moment of triumph is compromised when his wife (Patricia Hastie) is severely injured in a boating accident and lies in an irreversible coma.

Little does he realize, but this is only the beginning of Matt’s problems, and how he deals with them is depicted in witty, moving terms. The Descendants threads hilarity with heartbreak and sadness with satire in effortless, excellent fashion.

Matt’s attempts to re-establish his relationship with his daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) are complicated by their respective and collec tive rebellion. It’s Alexandra who reveals to Matt that her mother had been having an affair right up until the accident, and both Alexandra and Scottie are livid with their father for not having informed them of their mother’s severe condition beforehand. No matter how hard Matt tries to cushion the realities of life to his children, while somehow making sense of his own life, it seems as if the gods themselves are against him.

For all of their quirks and neuroses — and just as often because of them — these characters are splendid company throughout. They’ve been wonderfully realized in the film’s screenplay (penned by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rich) and by the cast. Throughout his career, Payne has exacted superior performances from his actors — some of whom have done career-best work under his direction — and although The Descendants is his first film in seven years, he’s not lost his touch.

Clooney, who just keeps getting better and better, is matched by a supporting cast with all the right moves. Every role is good, every performance is likewise: Nick Krause (as Alexandra’s kooky companion), Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer, Barbara Southern, Michael Ontkean and the always welcome

Robert Forster. Each brings humor and humanity. Spending time with them is a pleasure, and Payne’s use of Hawaiian locations and Hawaiian songs takes all the right steps. From beginning to end, The Descendants is right on target.

The Sitter ( ), a muddled misadventure in big-screen babysitting, is the latest — and least — film from talented director David Gordon Green (a graduate of the UNCSA School of Filmmaking), and it’s a shaky vehicle for leading man Jonah Hill, who has yet to prove he can carry a film on his own.

Hill’s Noah Griffith is a slovenly slacker and lovable loser who “lucks” into a babysitting gig, keeping an eye on three neighborhood children (Max Records, Landry Bender and Kevin Hernandez), who immediately proceed to make his life a living nightmare. Before too long, they’re on the road and on the loose in New York City, creating more chaos wherever they go.

The choppy screenplay is credited to Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka. It’s their first and it shows. Promoted as perhaps a lowbrow (read: hit-and-run) alternative to the higher-minded holiday fare currently in theaters, The Sitter simply isn’t very funny, and the film is remarkably cheap looking, especially since long-time Green collaborator Tim Orr (also a UNCSA grad) was the cinematographer. Some scenes barely appear to match, and the overall narrative is particularly choppy. The film runs barely 80 minutes and even then feels too long. For all the running around and slapstick shenanigans, the film barely moves.

The cast tries hard, and Hill establishes a modicum of onscreen rapport with his young charges, but there’s only so much they can do. Sam Rockwell has a few funny moments as a whacked-out drug dealer, but Ari Graynor (as Noah’s transparently untrustworthy girlfriend), JB Smoove, Method Man and lovely Erin Daniels are wasted in throwaway roles.

This marks Hill’s last film before his recent weight loss, and it’s not one of his best. Like Jesse Eisenberg, who followed his Oscar-nominated turn in last year’s The Social Network with an unremarkable turn in the flimsy 30 Minutes or Less, Hill follows a strong performance in Moneyball with the sort of tepid comedy that does his career no favors. The Sitter gives the impression that everyone involved is just killing time between other, better projects.

For an exclusive interview with filmmaker David Gordon Green, turn to Page 38.

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