2011. 115 minutes. Rated R.
“What is it that makes the women in my life destroy themselves?”
The Descendants, directed by Alexander Payne, features the bittersweet drama of Matt King (George Clooney), a Hawaii attorney and land owner, who struggles to reconcile the imminent loss of his wife after a boating accident with his new role as a single father of two girls. Matt King learns that his wife Elizabeth, (Patricia Hastle) who is in a coma, will not live. Learning of an affair she had with a real estate magnate, Matt and his daughters mount an “investigation” of sorts to get some closure. What might be construed as a tearjerker is instead a funny, bright and sobering drama of a father and his two girls connecting with one another as they unearth the secrets of Elizabeth’s love affair, and begin to mourn the loss of a life they knew, even if not embraced. And while a story of loss might be heavy on the emotions, it is instead unapologetically human in its portrayal of frailty, humor, awkwardness and dysfunction; the trademarks of every family struggling to come to terms with events of a unexpected family drama.
As the news of Elizabeth’s coma turns into a story of loss, Matt King is readying for a decision about the selling of of land owned by the family estate. An old law against perpetuity requires land owned by Matt’s side of the family to be sold, or risk losing it altogether. As sole trustee, Matt presides over the decision of who to sell 25,000 acres of land. If the land falls to the “wrong” bidder, a hidden paradise could turn into a modern day eyesore. The island eagerly awaits his decision.
Matt King comes from a wealthy family and, as a result, is independently wealthy, sitting on a separate trust he never touches. His siblings and cousins have burned through their trusts and seek to gain through the sale of the family land. Matt’s wealth becomes a subplot for a life that is flashing before him at the reminders of his cousins and friends. If only Elizabeth was given more money for shopping sprees, she wouldn’t have been in the boat seeking the thrills of the waves when she fell. It is also presumed that King doesn’t need to capitalize on the sale of the land, and can take less to sell to a local buyer. So go the whispers of the townsfolk.
Amidst the “drama” around the sale of the land and the news that Elizabeth’s Will dictates that she be taken off life support, Matt, at the urging of his eldest daughter, Alexandra King (Shailene Woodley), decides to track down Elizabeth’s lover. After all, it was Alex who, fresh home from boarding school to see her mother, informs Matt that his wife was having an affair.
What ensues in the hunt for a man involved in Elizabeth’s affair, is a short journey into the hearts and minds of a family struggling to deal with anger, conflict and sadness while finding ways to mourn by probing for answers (answers that are not always there). Like any person and family confronted with crisis, there is a moment of stress and struggle, but also a Buddhist moment of clarity that surfaces amidst the humor and comedy of the family’s pursuits.
George Clooney is so smooth. He always creates a calm connection with his audience as a cool-under-pressure kind of actor. Clooney to me is sort of an academic carpenter: classy and severe, but virile and intelligent even if a bit clumsy in his discovery. In any case, he is outright comforting. And while we hold back tears a couple of times, we see the fragility and desperation, the intensity and sadness in the face of Clooney’s character. Good god, he is downright spectacular as Matt King.
What comes at the end of the film is a reconciliation of sorts. Us with our family for being so goddamned complex and dysfunctional, but more appropriately, a reconciliation with our own humanity. Philosophical, light and humorous may best describe the turns and tempo of the drama. What more could I ask for? And, the occasional curve ball makes this movie less than predictable. While we might believe we are familiar with the drama, we are delighted at the sheer wonder of the film’s humanity. Just when we think the characters (ourselves) are incapable of clarity and forgiveness in the decisions that affect us all, we may, like Clooney, be pleasantly surprised at what unfolds.
**Many thanks to Beth Gallaway for letting me review The Descendants after her own masterful take on the film.
Please read Beth Gallaway’s review here The Descendants