The Deadbeats: Bad Dads From Brad Pitt To ‘The Descendants’

Brad Pitt was named 2011’s Best Actor by the New York Film Critics Circle, which marks a notable shift in the thespian’s career. It’s not that he’s never been given awards love before, because he has. But Brad Pitt used to be a sex symbol — and I guess he still is, in that People magazine sort of way. But not really. That’s because he’s playing dads now.

It’s a big deal when actresses shift from playing the hottie to the mommy. Less so for men, who can still sex it up with pretty young things until they’re literally in the coffin. Still, the Brad Pitt recognized for The Tree Of Life and Moneyball is very different from the Brad Pitt nominated for his (CGI-enhanced) pretty boy leading man status in The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button just a few years ago. Pitt has officially moved into George Clooney territory — good-looking, sure. But before you get it on with him, wouldn’t you first inquire whether or not he’s got a son you might hit it off with instead?

Of course, George Clooney has been dad-age for quite some time, with that salt-and-pepper hair. Yet, remarkably, he has not made a career of playing dads. The man is 50 years old! Why is he still constantly portraying the lothario bachelor? Up In The Air, Michael Clayton, The American… single dudes, all. The man just can’t commit, I guess. Almost zero of his big screen roles are with child. (Does it count when he’s playing a fox in The Fantastic Mr. Fox? ‘Cause that’s really the only part he’s taken where fatherhood factors into the storyline in a major way.) This may be the reason his turn n Alexander Payne’s The Descendants is getting awards buzz (he was the National Board Of Review pick for Best Actor).

Clooney stars as Matt King, the descendant of Hawaiian royalty, charged with deciding who a large plot of land on the islands will be sold to. Far more pressing in his life, though, is the fact that his wife was in a terrible boating accident, landing her in a coma. He learns early on in the film that she’ll never wake up. That leaves the former deadbeat dad with the task of raising his two daughters alone.But setting aside Clooney for a moment, the film’s most prominent buzz is actually directed at Shailene Woodley, who plays the oldest daughter, Alex. As well it should be. Woodley is terrific as the foul-mouthed 17-year-old who doesn’t mince words. She’s a believable teenager (kinda rare on screen these days) and manages to be the heart of the movie at the same time. She anchors the entire film; it’s better whenever she’s on-screen. This is a star-making turn, and almost certainly she’ll be rewarded with an Oscar nomination. After all, it isn’t easy to outshine and out-charisma George freakin’ Clooney, but Woodley has done — and made it look effortless to boot.

The Descendants‘ plot follows Matt, Alex, her comic-relief Keanu-in-the-making stoner friend Sid (Nick Krause), and the baby of the family, Scottie, as they endeavor to find and confront the man Mama King has been cheating on her husband with. (He’s played to smarmy perfection by Scream‘s Matthew Lillard.) Payne, who gave us Election, Sideways, and About Schmidt, stages many scenes with the perfect balance of pathos and humor. But others veer a little too far in one direction or the other.The Descendants‘ pace is a little laggy. There’s an unfortunate over-reliance on voice-over, and the subplot involving the sale of the family’s land never really becomes involving. The fact these people are descendants of Hawaiian nobility ends up being inconsequential, when it probably could have been fascinating. (Though I will say, much to my surprise, Clooney actually does manage to look part-Hawaiian in the role.) I liked individual moments more than I enjoyed what the film adds up to as a whole — Robert Forster bidding his daughter goodbye, Judy Greer’s visit to the hospital (you’ll see what I mean).

Yes, Hawaii is beautiful, and a dying wife and mother is sad. Still, there’s kind of a “been there, done that” to the proceedings. It all feels a little too neat and tidy. It’s a “nice” movie, one you could see with your parents. And George Clooney is perfectly fine as the lead, but you have to wonder if the part wasn’t meant for a slightly schlubbier Paul Giamatti-ish actor. (Who cheats on George Clooney with Matthew Lillard? Or maybe that’s the point.) It’s hard to imagine Clooney being such a bad husband or bad father (we never see any direct evidence of this). It’s hard to imagine George Clooney being bad at anything, except Batman. He’s George Clooney! And I don’t know about you, but I like my Clooney when he’s believably good at everything, like robbing casinos and fucking over Tilda Swinton. As a deadbeat dad, I’m not so ready to buy what Clooney’s selling.Ironically, it is much easier to buy Brad Pitt as a lousy father, even though in real life he has approximately 75 perfect children from all over the world.

Unlike Clooney, Brad Pitt has, every now and then, played a father — like in 2006’s Babel. It’s not unheard of, but nevertheless, he spent most of the last decade being hunky and baby-free (on screen, that is), with roles in Ocean’s Thirteen and Inglourious Basterds and Troy and Mr. & Mrs. Smith and The Assissination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford and all that.

He’s probably not what you’d call “hunky” in Moneyball, unless you’re turned on by high-strung, superstitious failed baseball players. I dunno, maybe you are; I mean, he’s still Brad Pitt. But as Billy Beane, Pitt does his best to come across as average, even kind of a lout, and damned if he doesn’t almost convince you that he’s not, you know. Brad Pitt.Moneyball is the true story of Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane, who revolutionized the way Major League players are scouted in 2002. If you don’t have any interest in baseball, that’s okay, because the movie doesn’t have much of one, either. It’s about baseball the way The Social Network is about Facebook — an apt comparison because Aaron Sorkin wrote both (sharing credit with Steve Zaillian here), not because Moneyball is anywhere near as awesome as The Social Network. It’s a smart, engaging crowd-pleaser — not a masterpiece.

While Brad Pitt has gotten a little buzz for his portrayal of Beane, it may be Jonah Hill who has the best chance at an Oscar nomination as Peter Brand, the guy who invents the system Beane uses to achieve a record-breaking 20-game winning streak. He’s more understated than usual and quietly funny here, and if he misses out on a nomination (supporting actor is a pretty competitive category) it’ll be because Moneyball drops the ball (sorry) on the relationship between these characters in the film’s second half. Seemingly, this would have been the most interesting angle from which to explore this story; either that, or Beane’s relationship with Coach Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman, working with director Bennett Miller for the second time after their Oscar-winning success in Capote). That dynamic is also curiously underutilized. Isn’t wasting Philip Seymour Hoffman kind of a crime in Hollywood? You’d think so. Off with his head.

No, it’s actually Billy Beane’s relationship with his daughter that this movie ultimately wants you to care about, and these are the least riveting and convincing scenes in the entire movie. Instead of working her into the main plot, the story lurches to a halt whenever Miller decides there needs to be a “father/daughter” moment. (Girl, interrupting!) Though you’d think they’d be boring, the baseball and statistics-related scenes crackle with energy and wit, while Pitt’s scenes with Kerris Dorsey feel imported from a more sentimental, by-the-numbers movie. There are also awkward flashbacks to Pitt’s own failure as a baseball player that help us better understand his character, but they don’t quite work. And the Oakland A’s themselves (led by the very good Chris Pratt) also get the short shrift, leaving us to wonder what, exactly, this movie wants us to care about. Little Casey Beane? Is that all?

Since this is a true story, it doesn’t spoil much to say that Beane’s system works, and he is offered quite a lot of money to trade up and work for the Boston Red Sox. But that would mean leaving his daughter behind in California. Moneyball is sneaky — it goes for the uplifting ending, with Beane staying with his daughter, money be damned, as he listens to a recording of a song she wrote (she’s musical, you see). This song and the text on screen just before the credits roll might change your nterpretation of the movie; all this time, supposedly, we’re rooting for Billy Beane. Now, at the end, Casey repeatedly sings, “You’re such a loser, Dad,” and we have to wonder — is Moneyball trying to leave us with the impression that Billy Beane is a loser for choosing his daughter over his career?

That’s the message I got. Moneyball is an engaging film, but I didn’t take much away from it, except a better understanding of how Major League teams are assembled. No singular relationship is satisfactorily explored — characters played by Hill, Hoffman, and Robin Wright are given minimal emotional consequence in Beane’s arc. It all adds up to less than the sum of its parts.Of course, Brad Pitt is in a much better movie this year, another one with fascinating pieces that don’t much add up to a cohesive whole. Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life is — even many of its devoted fans will agree — a mess. But it’s a riveting, beautiful mess, and unlike any other film out there.

What is it about? Everything. There’s only a very loose story — a young boy named Jack, played by Hunter McCracken, exists. That’s about it. He does things many young boys did in America in the 50’s — he climbs trees, he plays with sparklers, he fights with his brothers. If anything truly noteworthy happens (and it very seldom does), it will not be followed-through on later in the story. These are just fragments of a life. A fairly generic life. It’s a movie about… life.Oh, and there are dinosaurs! There is a long sequence which is nothing but beautiful images of the Earth being formed, and such. The Big Bang, and all that. A 15-minute visual history of our planet. I don’t actually know what is happening. Cool stuff. Stuff you probably haven’t seen in a movie before. The dinosaur scene represents the birth of compassion, I believe. Before I saw the movie, I dreaded the thought of sitting through this much-hyped (and much-decried) dialogue-free sequence. I wondered, How boring is this going to be? It ended up being my favorite part of the movie. It could have been twice as long, and I’d have been happy.

It’s the rest of the film I take some issue with. The Tree Of Life is never boring, but it is repetitive at times. Many scenes hit the same beat over and over. Some of the dialogue is too obvious. Whispered voice-over gives away the movie’s intent too much for my liking. Brad Pitt plays the boys’ stern father in a convincing, effective performance; he represents the Way of Man (I know, because Malick tells us). The luminous Jessica Chastain, as the mother, represents the Way of Grace; she’s good here, but given much more to do in Take Shelter, a more essential performance.

Sean Penn appears as the grown-up Jack, and I don’t know why — but neither does Sean Penn, as he has stated in interviews. I understand that the film works best given an adult vantage point from which to look back, but these scenes give us nothing. And if this movie is supposedly about Life (with a capital L), why do we see so many of the same kind of scenes — namely, Brad Pitt being an asshole? Why aren’t Jack’s teen years, college years, and early adult years explored at all? Wouldn’t that have been more complete? I’m sure Malick has an answer as to “why not?”, even if it is only because he ran out of money. (I doubt it, but The Tree Of Life was not cheap.) Exploring man as connected to the birth of the planet is such a vast topic; it seems a shame to waste even a minute of screen time on moments that are bland or repetitive.

And then there’s that ending. Some found it glorious; I found it tedious and pretentious and over-the-top. I’m sorry. For a movie so overstuffed with other grandiose images and themes, I didn’t need an ethereal climax, no matter how essential it is to Malick’s vision for this film. I don’t doubt that The Tree Of Life is almost exactly the movie Malick intended to make, so it’s hard to nitpick. But this wouldn’t be much of a review if I didn’t.

I don’t mean to pick on The Tree Of Life, though, because it’s gorgeous and alive and astounding. It’s more of an experience than a movie. Like a ride. Something to bask in. I can see why so many are going crazy for it.

Months after I saw it, I still don’t know how it compares to other films I’ve seen, or where it will rank on my year-end list. It defies categorization. I know I preferred it to Moneyball and The Descendants — if you want a flawed father on your screen this year, look no further than Brad Pitt as “Mr. O’Brien.”

There is at least one other largely-unheralded film this year dealt with daddy angst — David Schwimmer’s Trust. (Yes, “Ross” directed it. He’ll never live that down.) Clive Owen stars as the bad dad in question — well, not so much bad as clueless. His athletic daughter Annie (Liana Libreto) meets a dashing young boy online, and well, you know how that’s going to turn out. No one in a movie ever meets online unless they’re a total creeper. Your everyday, standard Match.com hookup doesn’t count as a “meet cute,” but the internet works wonders when it comes to introducing vulnerable young girls to sex predators. (Call it a “meet creepy.”) Clive Owen’s Will doesn’t handle the situation well — he becomes obsessed with finding the man who assaulted his daughter rather than dealing with Annie’s fragile emotions, and only perpetually makes a bad situation worse.

Catherine Keener co-stars as the wife and mother and Viola Davis has a smallish role as Annie’s therapist, but this is essentially a father-daughter story that alternates between hits and misses. The details pertaining to Annie’s feelings about what happened are right on — she defends the predator. She wants to protect him. A few other story beats are a little too predictable. Owen does what he can with the role, but Will is a bit too thinly-sketched, his character arc too pat and obvious (though in his final scene, Owen does some of his best acting). Trust is best whenever the story is Annie’s; her realization, late in the story, that she truly was a victim of this pedophile is devastating. But then Schwimmer fills the running time with unnecessary cuts to the parents without giving them much to work with. Like many actors-turned-directors, Schwimmer seems best at getting good performances while still a bit weak in overall storytelling.

But I will say this in its favor: while it lacks the edge of something like Hard Candy, the film ends on a more ominous and unresolved note than you’d expect. Setting the stage for Trust 2? Hey, you never know.

The Tree Of Life: You just need to see it.

The Descendants: A direct descendant of Alexander Payne’s other movies; as in, it’s worthwhile, but not quite as good.

Trust: You could do worse with your Netflix Watch Instantly, trust me.

Moneyball: Worth the price of admission, but drops the ball in the end.

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