When people walk into a movie theater, or pop in a dvd, their first and simplest hope is to see something new. People want to be transported, brought into novel worlds with unfamiliar cultures and bizarre new sets of rules to be assailed. Perhaps The Descendants’ greatest strength is that it shows a seldom before considered side of one of the world’s most well know paradises.
Matt King (played by George Clooney) plays a husband whose wife Elizabeth has just sustained a catastrophic head injury rendering her comatose. Upon reuniting with his estranged teenaged daughter Alexandra, he discovers that his wife had been carrying on an illicit affair, and had planned to leave him. Together with his family, and Alexandra’s dopey male friend Sid, King investigates his wife’s affair, all the while trying to decide the fate of a preposterously valuable piece of land that has been in his family for centuries.
The Descendants does an admirable job of putting a likable character in extremely tough spots. King repeatedly distinguishes himself, gaining a sort of dignity along the way, regardless of his attire. From the beginning, King is drawn as a man of admirable qualities: responsible, hard working, and the noblest of his family’s stock. He may be at a bit of a distance from his daughters, but his hard working nature and his refusal to live off his family’s money are the root. After the initial shock of his wife’s betrayal, the Descendants gives King the opportunity to handle horrible situations with grace. When he confronts Brian, the man with whom his wife had fallen in love, King shows him mercy and keeps the affair secret from the man’s wife and kids. Later, in an over-the-top scene, King’s father-in-law Scott mercilessly spews venom, irrationally blaming King for putting Elizabeth, a doting, loyal woman, in this situation by not spending more money on her. Instead of compounding the old man’s grief and throwing his daughter’s infidelity in his face, King keeps his silence, and concedes Scott’s ludicrous, heartache fueled accusations. And finally, when the time comes for King to decide on the fate of his family’s piece of land, despite the potential vitriol of his countless cousins, he decides to maintain his family’s legacy, and not sell the land.
When King refuses to sell the land, the film cuts away before he tells his cousins. This is a device I’m beginning to notice more and more. Cinematically, King is spared the consequences of his decision, and I can’t help but wonder if there’s something unethical about that. Personally, doing the right thing is only meaningful if it’s done at a great personal sacrifice. Granted, those consequences are still implied, but is that a cop out? Or is it simply sparing the audience the tedium of a predictable scene? If so, does the fact the screenplay relies on such a predictable scene in the film’s climax, even if excised from the on screen narrative, diminish the greater overall product?
Honestly, I don’t know the answers to any of those questions, but I find that scene somewhat emblematic of my broader issue with The Descendants. It puts its characters in tough spots, but it pulls back when the time comes to put them through the ringer. In the early going, King reunites with his supposed train wreck of a teenaged daughter, discovering her drunk at the boarding school to which she had been sent off to deal with substance abuse issues. He quickly discovers that she’s always had his back, and her former substance issues are apparently non-existent. When King attempts to honour his wife’s wishes by informing Brian of her accident, there’s the potential that he’s inviting an awkward, unwanted presence into Elizabeth’s passing, but Brian wants no part of any of the proceedings. When the time comes to reveal to King’s youngest daughter that her mother is going to die, rather than King having to tell her, the news is broken by a brand new, unfamiliar character. As the film rolls towards its climax, characters are left off the hook more and more.
In the opening voice over, The Descendants claims Hawaiians suffer just like folks in any other region, but the script takes it awful easy on its characters. It’s a humble, comfortable, unambitious exercise. It feels “adult” in a bad way: it lacks vitality, urgency, and daring. Its depictions of youth feel woefully, almost condescendingly out of touch, leaning pretty hard on “kids say the darndest things” bits of respite, and cliche, unimaginative depictions of teenagers. Alexandra transitions from a token bad girl to a vacant accomplice almost instantaneously, and her friend Sid’s revelation of his father’s recent passing fails to mask his raison d’etre: he’s a young fool for a wiser audience to chuckle and shake their heads at.
Restraint can certainly be a virtue, and The Descendants offers plenty of it. When a film makes no attempt to surprise or excite or challenge, it must offer some overwhelming strengths to mitigate that. The Descendants offers the minor irony of familial strife juxtaposed against a pleasant landscape. But in the end, there is a sweetness and a comfort to The Descendants’ subdued approach. In the film’s nearly static final image, King sits with his daughters, peacefully and happily as they watch a movie. It’s a proclamation not only of this family’s survival, but it’s restoration. With small, innocuous moments like these, the Descendants is a film that honours simple triumphs.