New Yorkers, and east coasters in general, can be brutally honest, harsh, cold, edgy, passionate, and sometimes just downright rude. The west coast, well, it’s portrayed just a bit more laid back. So it makes sense that we think of Hawaii as a place full of mellow, easy-going people who relax, unwind, and lose themselves under the palm trees. Matt King, played reverently by George Clooney, however, wants us to forget this West Coast stereotype. “We have the same problems everyone else has,” he narrates from a Hawaii downtown office. He makes a valid point, but competing against the background of white sand and infinite ocean is not an easy task, even for George Clooney.
The stunning views of Hawaii become more than just the background in Alexander Payne’s latest feature (just like the vineyards of California in Payne’s Sideways). They play an integral role in the story- also penned by Payne, with Nate Faxon and Jim Rash– portraits of paradise that tamper with the prospect of nature and business, family inheritance and economical practicality. Payne induces exhales of beauty and brings in a quiet, celestial perspective. It keeps us mesmerized but more importantly balanced, because between these felicitous gaps remain lots of father-daughter arguments, unpleasant hospital visits, and a man trying to sort out his newly distorted world.
The Descendants, adapted from the book by the same name, beautifully collages filial strife over numerous outlets, all equally challenging and inspiring. Matt, from the very beginning must immediately learn to parent by his lonesome- the first shot captures the pre-injurious boating accident that his wife Elizabeth “wave runs” into. She is sent to the hospital with a coma, leaving Matt to uphold their luxuriant, bohemian lifestyle. The wealthy property and land they own is an inheritance from Matt’s ancestors, now splitting the possession between he and his six male cousins. It’s 26 square acres of lush Hawaiian land, but Matt, the real estate lawyer in the family, sees it as too much of a burden to maintain, and with his relatives searches for a group to purchase the up-for-lease land. This decision curries displeasure from the natives, who foresee businesses and corporations exploiting the land with hotel chains and commercial shenanigans.
This, coupled with a deteriorating, unresponsive wife leads to some late nights and the resolution to have his two daughters be at home together. Matt brings his 10-year-old daughter Scotty (Amara Miller) to retrieve her older sister Alexandra (A glowing performance by Shailene Woodley) from the boarding school she resentfully attends. They return home bickering, disputing authority and exchanging acrimonious glances (all consumed in Alexandra’s farcically foul-mouth ). Clearly Matt, “the back-up parent,” is out of his fatherly element and must hurry to win back some credibility or keep aggregating more stress. The core agitation between dad and daughter is Matt’s marital blindness. In a fit of anger, surprise, and then curtained empathy, Alexandra reveals her mother’s infidelity to a bewildered, grieving husband. He humorously shuffles in his sandals to the neighborhood friends, and in a funny bit of affirmation, validates his wife’s misgivings- and even gets the offender’s name, Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard).
But what is Matt to do? His wife shows no signs of returning to a state of consciousness, and so his hospital visits become outbreaks of ire to Elizabeth’s unresponsive, altered mug. His marital state of perplexity complements his grizzled appearance, and Clooney masterfully highlights this cluelessness. He keeps Matt’s integrity however with sincere gazes, his eyes creating a pallet of fallibility and tenderness in which he mixes in varying proportions. Unaccustomed to striking the balance between grief and malice, Matt looks for a healthy catharsis. Alexandra, along with her indolent, happy-go-lucky sidekick Sid, persuades her dad to find Brian, confront him, and somehow earn back some dignity.
They trip around the islands, getting clues to his whereabouts and subtly kindle paternal affection. Matt’s search for the adulterer has an Hawaiian air to it- instead of a fast paced pursuit, Matt is content with strolling the sand, taking pleasure in his children in the midst of his own heartbreak. Payne uses his landscape to read between the lines, discretely hinting messages and morals with whatever surrounds his well-framed compositions. He splits his scenes with ethereal shots of the coast and sun setting sky, intimating that hesitant vengeance needs a chance to breathe in the salty air. With the landscape yearning affection, his meeting with cousin Hugh to establish the details of a hotel deal with some real-estate buyers seems to lose its sparkle. Traversing the land begins to forge a sentimental impact, and the cavernous outlooks of the coastline beckon reconsideration.
Matt’s challenge is deeper than the economical side of the deal. Payne pans over the household’s myriad of black and white family photos, forcing us to stare into their eyes. They surround Matt’s messy office, invisible judgment beaming from the walls. His current relatives, including an imposing father-in-law Scott (Robert Forster) refuses to accept his daughter’s infidelity. Proud and unwavering, he unleashes his unrelenting attitude with a punch to insensitive Sid’s nose, and disregards his grandchildren’s defense of their father, who see their mother in negative light. Judy Greer makes an impressionable cameo as Brian Speer’s devoted wife, Julie, struggling with her husband’s lies. Payne parallels her and Matt as lonely victims, but differences in grief management polarize their personalities. Matt demonstrates this stronger will by accepting the outpour of insults from Scott, a self-containing defense mechanism to sanctify his dying daughter. For the first time he embraces his role as dad, and learns to reserve judgment in this time of mourning.
It is here where Payne induces the gentle push from bitterness to amnesty. A film filled with warm comedic insertions that get grounded with unconditional love, The Descendants succeeds because of its characters’ ability to mature socially and spiritually. It celebrates imperfection as a natural condition, something human and existent in our everyday struggles. If the film has any flaws they are surely covered by this sense of tender remembrance and forgiveness, values to be learned and embraced at any stage in life.
- ‘The Descendants’: In Paradise, A Stranger To Himself (npr.org)
- The Descendants Oscar Screening Q & A – George Clooney and Alexander Payne (examiner.com)