Speaking as both a professional movie reviewer and an occasional consumer of movie reviews by other people, I have to admit that it gets my back up every time I see a critic refer to a given motion picture as one “for grown-ups.” I understand that there’s a compliment intended there, but I find the phrase both patronizing and a little pompous. Part of the fun of being a grown-up, it seems to me, is being OK with the fact that your taste can still embrace stuff that’s not entirely “grown-up.” But I get what the term is shorthand for. And it might be interesting to experimentally apply the “grown-up” test to this year’s Oscar race.
Terrence Malick’s often sublime genuine art film The Tree of Life
? It’s mature, for sure, but its cosmic outlook contains an element of childlike wonder. The Help
? It certainly has a mature theme, but given the over-the-top pie, um, gag, you can’t say that it deals with that theme in an altogether grown-up way. Moneyball
? Smart about baseball. Which is a game. War Horse
? A war movie, yes, but a little more on the soppy side than most so-called grown-ups might prefer. Hugo
? It made my 10-best list
, but there’s no getting around the fact that its intended audience is on the younger side; director Martin Scorsese has said that one of his motivations for making it was to have a film he could show his 12-year-old daughter (who also has a cameo role in the movie). Midnight in Paris
? It’s a Woody Allen comedy, which means it’s about a grown-up guy dealing with his own lack of maturity. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
? Well, it is a 9/11 movie. Only 9/11 as seen through the eyes of a highly precocious wannabe tear-jerking child. Not a Charles Ferguson perspective on the event, then. The Artist
? Very charming. And it’s about “old movies.” Still, one of the highlights is a cute dog.
That leaves The Descendants
, a film that I rated right above Hugo
on my own best-of-2011 list, and which is, to my mind, an exemplary “grown-up” movie (or would be if it was in my default mindset to consider it as such). That is, it deals in a clear-eyed and mature and compassionate and even wise way with themes both quotidian and daunting — the day-to-day negotiations with the people closest to you, the lies you tell yourself to keep yourself and your relationships going, and of course love and death. And it deals with those themes in ways that are alternately moving, provocative and very funny.
It’s probably going to lose in the Best Picture category, or so the oddsmakers say. And to The Artist, which, as we’ve noted, is very charming. Oh well. As to whether the Oscars themselves are “grown-up,” that’ll have to wait for another post at another time, but it’s worth remembering that the ceremony was conceived 83 years ago as a way of putting a patch of dignity on an industry that was largely seen as kind of trivial in spite of all the money it was making.
It’s also worth noting that there’s a movie in contention for an Oscar that’s as “grown-up” as The Descendants
, and perhaps even more so: It’s the Best Foreign Language nominee from Iran, recently in the news as a country that commentator Tucker Carlson said “deserves to be annihilated.” The movie is called A Separation
, and it’s a brilliant, entirely engrossing, and emotionally shattering story of a Tehran family torn asunder — not just by that country’s judicial system, but also by the bullheadedness of various individuals in the story. (In this way it may remind you of the Hawaii-set Descendants
.) The movie is well worth seeing. Provided you’re, you know, grown up enough.
By Glenn Kenny
Glenn Kenny is a journalist based in Brooklyn. Now chief film critic for MSN Movies, he was a senior editor and chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1996 to 2007.
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