“The Descendants” (2011). Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Patricia Hastie, Nick Krause, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Barbara L. Southern, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer, Mary Birdsong, Rob Huebel, Laird Hamilton. Director: Alexander Payne. Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxom and Jim Rash. Book: Kaui Hart Hemmings. www.foxsearchlight.com/thedescendants/
What we think of as paradise may not always measure up to expectations, and that can be particularly disheartening if our contributions to its creation are riddled with pitfalls that arise from problematic beliefs and intents. It can even happen in places we think are immune to such irksome concerns, like Hawaii, as is apparent in the new comedy-drama, “The Descendants.”
Matt King (George Clooney) is a man with a lot on his plate. Professionally he’s a successful real estate attorney acting as trustee for a huge parcel of property that has been in his family for generations, some of whom were members of the Hawaiian royal family. However, with tax consequences threatening to hammer the family financially if the property is retained in perpetuity, he must now find a suitable disposition for the land, one that will benefit both him and his many cousins, a number of whom are broke. Several competing proposals loom, causing some polite yet undeniable discord in the family, which he’s called upon to alleviate whenever discussions threaten to become heated. What’s more, considering the high-profile nature of this pending transaction, the disposition has attracted much public scrutiny. Matt’s got quite a challenge holding everything together.
But, if this weren’t enough, Matt also has major problems on the home front. His wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) lies comatose in a hospital bed after a tragic boating accident, leaving him alone to raise the two daughters he barely knows, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), a rambunctious scamp who frequently acts out in unpredictable ways, and 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley), an outspoken, streetwise teen who’s enrolled at a private school for students with emotional and substance abuse issues. Matt clearly has his hands full with his kids, but, even though he’s the parent, he’s the one who stands to learn the most from this arrangement, like family secrets that have escaped his attention. The biggest of these is Alex’s revelation that Elizabeth was having an affair prior to her accident, an incident that led to her falling out with her mother and contributed to her subsequent substance issues. Indeed, father might not always know best – or even what’s going on.
As Elizabeth’s health deteriorates, Matt faces some tough prospects, such as notifying her friends and family (particularly her ornery father, Scott (Robert Forster)) of what appears to be her impending demise. Carrying on isn’t easy for him; besides the emotional upset associated with these tasks, not to mention his own personal anguish, he’s also obsessed with figuring out how to confront the man with whom Elizabeth had the affair (Matthew Lillard). And, once the real reasons behind the affair become apparent, Matt’s circumstances become doubly complicated – and even more upsetting.
Given the bombardment of revelations that come Matt’s way, it’s obvious he’s spent too much of his time on his career and too little of his attention on his family, which has no doubt fueled their “defiant” behavior (and, in turn, his apparent cluelessness as to their actions). He’s also a little tight with the family’s purse strings; despite a fair degree of affluence, he faithfully adheres to his father’s financial advice about giving his kids “enough money to do something, but not enough to do nothing.” He genuinely hopes his work ethic and frugality will instill sound values in his family, yet just the opposite seems to be true, which frequently perplexes him.
From this, it’s apparent Matt has never heard of living in the moment, enjoying “the now,” for it’s a moment that will never come again, and, as conscious creation practitioners know so well, the present is the point of power and the only moment over which we have any direct control. One could spend years planning for the future and never get to realize the benefits of it if one isn’t present in that future to enjoy it. Elizabeth, Alex and Scottie grasp this, but Matt obviously doesn’t, so while he’s hunkered down over a stack of legal documents, they’re living life and enjoying themselves (and what better place to do this than in the splendor that is Hawaii). There’s evidently a hugelesson in this for the beleaguered attorney.
Focusing one’s attention on the present moment is very freeing, not only in terms of doing what one wants, but also in terms of being who one wants to be. Again, Matt’s wife and daughters understand this, though he still needs to get the lesson. Being the supremely responsible provider that he is, for both his immediate and extended families, Matt’s convinced himself that he must conscientiously abide by his obligations, following the tried-and-true path and rarely allowing himself to be spontaneous, frequently stifling the emergence of his “true” self. Circumstances push Matt into changing his ways, letting him see that it’s perfectly acceptable to give himself permission to follow his impulses and to live his life the way he wants, even if that life is somewhat out of step with what others expect out of him.
As inspiring and enlightening as these notions are, however, they don’t receive the full development they deserve. Many of the ideas raised in “The Descendants” feel half-baked, never reaching complete fruition. Perhaps something was lost in the transition of this story from novel to screenplay, but, as the picture stands now, the script comes across more like a first draft than a finished product, with plenty of gaps that could use filling in (some of which, for all I know, may have ended up on the editing room floor). Ultimately, however, the film’s fine acting (especially Clooney and Woodley), beautiful scenery, colorful characters and genuinely funny one-liners aren’t enough to hide a narrative that’s substantively thin and feels incomplete.
“The Descendants” has been receiving considerable press as a strong awards season contender, and the performances by Clooney and Woodley certainly merit serious attention as potential nominees. However, I’d like to hope Hollywood has better offerings in store as the season progresses. In its current form, the film is a pleasant diversion, like a fun trip to a tropical beach on a cold winter’s afternoon, but, as nice as that is, viewers shouldn’t expect paradise.
Copyright © 2011, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.