Movie time: Michelle Williams and George Clooney in action

George Clooney does some sleuthing behind the shrubbery in "The Descendants."/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Two movies opened this week that I had an interest in seeing — “The Descendants” with George Clooney and “My Week With Marilyn,” starring Michelle Williams, each an early contender for Oscar nominations — primarily because I thought they had a chance to be good. That makes me different from “sanctioned movie critics.” They see everything.

I had a few stints in the movie critic’s chair at The Oregonian, and it nearly killed off my love of movies, because just about every day I gulped and forced myself through the door and into the dark to see a movie I knew I wouldn’t like, or worse, something that repulsed me. I tried to keep an open mind, to locate the reasons other people might enjoy it so I could let them know that, yes, those parts were in there. But it wasn’t my idea of fun. I tended to write very long reviews of movies that interested me and award them multitudes of stars and give short shrift to everything else.

I loved Robert Altman (still do) and in a fit of insanity, I gave what may be his worst film, “Pret-a-Porter,” the maximum four stars.  I was so beguiled by “Howards End,” the baroque Merchant-Ivory film, that I gave it FIVE stars out of four. I was a drowning man, grasping at any sign of intelligent life to buoy me for a moment.

I still like “Howards End,” but maybe not five stars worth, though in truth I find the very idea of stars ridiculous. Here’s John Dewey in http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dewey-aesthetics/“Art as Experience,” published in 1934: “Criticism is thought of as if its business were not explication of the content of an object as to substance and form, but a process of acquittal or condemnation on the basis of merits and demerits.”  The “process of acquittal or condemnation” is the primary mode of popular criticism, now more than ever, defended as “consumer advice,” whenever anyone raises a question about it.

Just for the record: Weekend Wrap does not pronounce guilt or innocence, rap its gavel and declare that the case is closed. In art, the case is always open and paintings, plays, dances, movies and concerts you find ridiculous may occupy the very center of my aesthetic world. And I like it that way!

“My Week With Marilyn,” The Weinstein Company: I have no idea how Michelle Williams ended up in “My Week With Marilyn.” Scarlett Johansson and Naomi Watts were both linked to another Marilyn Monroe movie in development, “Blonde,” and they are a little more obvious because of their star power, plus Johansson’s figure is more Marilyn-esque. Angelina Jolie was linked to yet another Marilyn project, “The Life and Times of Maf the Dog,” and I guess I get that along with maybe Charlize Theron?  I don’t know: The more I thought about it, the more I realized what a monumental casting problem any Marilyn biopic has. We know (or think we know) her so well.

Michelle Williams' Marilyn Monroe enjoys swimming in the buff./The Weinstein Company

Anyway, I wanted to see what Williams would do with the role, primarily because she’s been so good in little movies with Oregon connections, “Wendy and Lucy” and “Meek’s Cutoff.” I thought she couldn’t possibly project the real Marilyn’s sheer primate magnetism or the sense of “sexy fun” that she generated, but still I was interested.

She’s terrific as it turns out. Give her that Marilyn hair-do and a little judicious padding, and she resembles Marilyn enough to get by, but more importantly, she creates a palpable vulnerability or  neediness or whatever it is that we associate with Monroe, exaggerated by her stardom, her celebrity, into a character we’d ordinarily think could only be imaginary, a creature from a science fiction novel, whose sensitivities are so acute that the slightest perturbation in her environment splinters her into a million pieces, which then streak toward the nearest hiding place.

Manohla Dargis in the New York Times complained in her review that the miss in the movie belonged to the screenwriter: “Instead of the complex woman familiar from the better books about her, the film offers a catalog of Monroe stereotypes: child, woman, smiling exhibitionist, shrieking neurotic, the barefooted free spirit and, lamentably, the martyr teetering in heels toward her doom.” I take her point, though I haven’t read “the better books” about Monroe, I suppose. I’m not Marilyn-obsessed, after all. I think we never have a very firm idea about another person, though we’re more likely to with a celebrity than anyone else, because their parts, their lives,  ARE stereotypes to one degree or another. That’s the price they pay, I think.

Williams herself isn’t a celebrity exactly, not a Big Star, though she was the partner of one, the late Heath Ledger. Which maybe allows her performance to describe for us something vivid and original, something hiding behind behind the words we use about Marilyn, including “stereotypes.” That’s what good acting does; it shows us the limits of adjectives and metaphors to describe another human. We get to see it. “Shrieking neurotic”? There’s not a moment in “My Week With Marilyn” I’d describe that way, though Williams occasional does something close to shriek and is undoubtedly playing a character who was “neurotic.” I’m just saying that the reduction doesn’t hold up. These words are such paltry things, the way, really, that we construct stereotypes, including the stereotype of the film that traffics in stereotypes.

Somewhere, Dargis implies, there’s a deeper depiction of Marilyn awaiting discovery. I’d say, following Dewey, that somewhere there’s an alternate description that will be more useful to us, one way or another.

David Denby in the New Yorker is far kinder in his judgment, if you want to read his take and get a good idea of the movie as a whole: “In ‘My Week with Marilyn,’ Williams makes the star come alive. She has Monroe’s walk, the easy, swivelling neck, the face that responds to everything like a flower swaying in the breeze. Most important, she has the sexual sweetness and the hurt, lost look that shifts, in a flash, into resistance and tears.”

In Dargis’s defense, I’d suggest that she’s more restless about the Myth of Marilyn than Denby is (or maybe than I am). She wants more, new iterations and interpretations. This particular description comes by way of someone who was there — the movie is based on the memoirs of  Colin Clark, a young man working on the 1957 set of “The Prince and the Showgirl,” which starred Monroe and Laurence Olivier. I haven’t read the source material and compared it to the script, let alone do any sleuthing to verify his account. Did he REALLY go skinny-dipping with Marilyn? Is his view of her smothered by stereotype, too? I’m sure it is, to some extent. But to me, in this film with this “Marilyn” it felt fresh and true, and I thought it brought me a little closer to someone, Marilyn Monroe, who has been more of a symbol to me than someone “actual.”

George Clooney, Shailene Woodely and Amara Miller in “The Descendants”/Fox Searchlight Pictures

“The Descendants,” Fox Searchlight Pictures: Whew! We got Marilyn out of the way! Now on to the less contentious ground of “The Descendants,” a curious, shifting little movie (if any movie with George Clooney can be defined as “little” at this point) that heads toward a conventional narrative conclusion via a meandering, amusing route, not that it doesn’t sink into some sentimental moments, too.

The move ties together two narrative threads. In one, Clooney as Matt King is making a decision about whether to develop a beautiful, untouched bay on Kauai and which of two developers he’s going to tap to do the developing. The half a billion bucks he gets will go to the “Descendants,” the tribe of cousins (to which he belongs) who have a stake in the property, left to them through the generations from the marriage of an American to a native princess.

As the film begins, Clooney has pretty much made up his mind which developer he’s going to choose, but then the other plot thread gets in the way. His wife is in a coma. Sad, and at her bedside he confesses that he’s been a neglectful, absent husband and father, more concerned with his lawyering business than anything else. He knows he’s been remote, and if she just pulls through this, he promises he’ll do better.

But then, he gets the news from his older daughter that his loving wife has had a very recent and ongoing dalliance. Oops. Who is he? How did this happen? What does it mean? Suddenly, he’s in the middle of the odyssey that makes up the bulk of “The Descendants.”

I figured I’d like “The Descendants” for two reasons. Clooney “gets” the reasonably competent and psychologically integrated modern American male really well, his boyishness verging on his shallowness, his regret so easily channeled into anger, his love so often misplaced, misdirected and intermittent, his principles prey to his impulses. But despite all the stretching, he usually snaps back into place just fine. This is the Clooney of “Up in the Air” and “Michael Clayton” and parts of other characters in his other films.

Clooney’s ability with that sort of role made him a good choice to work with director Alexander Payne, who directed “Sideways” “About Schmidt” and “Election,” with their “careful dissection of the beached male” in the words of the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane. So, yes, I was confident that I’d enjoy “The Descendants,” and I did, mostly because it was funny in a wry way. Clooney can be an excellent comedian (I loved him in “O Brother Where Art Thou?” and he’s good in the “Ocean’s” movies), and here he’s aided by three cute kids. Sometimes he’s the straight man, and sometimes he provides the funny “reaction” shot.

I didn’t just love “The Descendants” because of the sentimentality I mentioned. There’s some wallowing, at least to me, and I’m not big on those tear-jerker scenes, though I totally understand how cathartic they can be for others. Maybe I’m just too repressed.

I’m worried about that because I find myself in partial agreement with the hanging judge of Sentimental Soaps, the Voice’s J. Hoberman, who called “The Descendants” “insistently sincere and positively sudsy” at the top of his review and then concluded: “… it left me cold. The pathos is as unearned as the protagonist’s privilege.” Ouch!

But then A.O. Scott of the New York Times saw it completely differently: “To call ‘The Descendants’ perfect would be a kind of insult, a betrayal of its commitment to, and celebration of, human imperfection. Its flaws are impossible to distinguish from its pleasures.” So there. I’m much closer to Scott, but I have some of Hoberman’s reservations maybe. Does that help?

Whether you like “My Week With Marilyn” or “The Descendants” or not, maybe you’ll agree with me that watching Michelle Williams and George Clooney in action has pleasures of its own, layers of them actually. And those pleasures are a big reason that for heading to the movies for that afternoon matinee.

NOTES

This story appeared originally as a post on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Arts & Life page.

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