In anticipation of Sunday's Academy Award ceremony, IBTimes has been analyzing each Best Picture nominee's chance of winning the Oscar. For our final analysis: Alexander Payne's The Descendants.
Given the enormous good will surrounding The Descendants, its writer-director, and its lead actor, it is unlikely (but not unthinkable) that it will walk away from the Oscars empty-handed. But only in the Best Picture category would an Oscar be considered a real upset.
Payne, with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, took the Writer's Guild Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and Clooney already has a Golden Globe for his starring role. In both of the equivalent Oscar categories, Moneyball is the strongest opposition to The Descendants, and it would be no surprise at all if the Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor categories were split between them.
The Descendants won the Best Picture Drama Golden Globe; in a category that didn't include The Artist, but did include many of its fellow Oscar nominees.
Although it's a tearjerker with universal themes about family and forgiveness, 'The Descendants' just doesn't feel like your typical Best Picture winner, wrote Tim Grierson for Deadspin. It's not inspirational. It's not about a man overcoming great obstacles. It's not an epic. It's just a small little film about a lazy husband and father who finally pulls himself together to try to be a better human being.
Where so many other Oscar wannabes announce their self-importance, Grierson continued, 'The Descendants' is a gentle, well-observed gem that calmly and patiently wins you over.
Extraordinary, devastating things happen to the characters in The Descendants, of course. But at some point in our lives, extraordinary, devastating things will happen to all of us. Is this gem too small a story, with too small a voice, for a Best Picture Oscar?
The Academy doesn't have much of a history of rewarding unassuming dark horses. Payne's Sideways lost the Best Picture prize to Clint Eastwood's heavy-handed Million Dollar Baby in 2004; in previous years, smaller character studies like In the Bedroom and Lost in Translation couldn't compete with more grandiose productions like A Beautiful Mind and Lord of the Rings. Among the nine Fox Searchlight films nominated for Best Picture since 1997 (including The Descendants) only Slumdog Millionaire has taken home the Oscar.
As IBTimes reported Friday, the vox populi challenger to The Artist is not The Descendants but Midnight in Paris. With an 89% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, The Descendants may have alienated some viewers by threading a heartbreaking family tragedy with quirky humor, though most critics agree that Payne hits the right balance most of the time. While a mitigating plot point is welcome for softening the anguish of the characters and audience alike, at times it seems like a get-out-of-jail free card -- liberating the filmmakers to travel down absurdist byways that might feel glib or insensitive inside another story.
That said, The Descendants is at its best when it's mining the unavoidable byproducts of unthinkable, time-stopping disasters; when it captures the messiness of life while attending to the dying. But Academy types like their melodrama with a side of hope and redemption -- not caked drool and precocious puberty.
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