A Meditation on People and Their Environment
Alexander Payne is known for his off-beat, satirical dramas that tend to also be placed in the comedy category. No doubt his films are funny, but the comedy comes from the resonance that Payne is able to fold into his narratives. The scenarios that we see are painfully funny. Payne re-wrote the script that was co-written by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash based on the novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Payne has been doing this with great success since Citizen Ruth (1996). The Descendants (2011) is Payne’s latest addition to his impressive body of work which includes the high school set political satire Election (1999), the meaning of life meditation About Schmidt (2002), and the coming of age in their forties picture Sideways (2004). These films often contain subject matter that is so appalling and tragic that if you do not laugh, you’ll cry. The thing that makes the subject matter so appalling is that we can all relate to the scenarios that Payne presents to us; we all know the people that Payne introduces us to (we even see some of them in the mirror). Call them comedies if you like, because you will laugh watching an Alexander Payne film, but take a moment to look a little deeper next time you are enjoying one.
What would you do if your husband, wife, or significant other was in a tragic accident that left them in a coma with little chance to live? Would you take charge and do everything that you can to make sure they are getting the best care, and make sure that you are there for your family? Maybe you would crumble under the pressure and be unable to do what is best for everyone (and I’m not talking about pulling the plug or not pulling the plug). Perhaps you would turn to those around you and ask for the support that you need. People end up in these unexpected situations all the time, and there is no right answer. Until you are in that position you will never truly know what you are facing. Making decisions during a time that is literally life or death would be, without a doubt, difficult for anyone though. How would you feel if you found out that your significant other who is currently lying in a coma was not being faithful to you prior to the accident? This is exactly what happens to Matt King (George Clooney) in The Descendants.
Matt King is the sole trustee of the last big parcel of undeveloped land in Hawaii. It was passed down to his family by their ancestors. An unfortunate law is requiring that Matt and his family sell off the land, so the Kings are meeting to decide who it would be best to sell to. They will all be made very wealthy by the decision (the number 100 million dollars comes up), but it is ultimately up to Matt to decide what happens with the land. This is a big responsibility, to put it very lightly. Matt meets with some of the cousins from time to time, and there are differing opinions on who the family should sell to, or if they should even sell at all. At the very same time, Matt’s wife is lying in a hospital bed, her fate unsure. Matt has always been responsible with matters of work and finance, but he even admits in his narration, “I’m the backup parent, the understudy.” Matt begins to realize that maybe his priorities were a little off when he has to start being there for his children, and this notion is cemented further when he finds out that his wife was cheating on him because he was never around.
The first step in Matt’s journey is to get his older daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), and bring her home from boarding school. We find out that Alexandra is a wild child that her parents are unable to control. Boarding school may be what some children need, and it may be very helpful to them, but this is not the case with Alexandra. When Matt arrives to pick up his eldest daughter she is not in her room. Instead, she is outside drinking with a friend. Clearly boarding school is not working for her. Matt remarks “this is what I pay $35,000 a year for.” To him, everything is seen in terms of dollars and cents. Early in the film when he is explaining that many of his cousins have wasted their inheritance, he makes sure to point out that he has never touched that money, and that he sustains his family’s lifestyle with the earnings from his law practice (he specialized in real estate law). He seems to be under the impression that if he provides his family with a stable income, in a responsible way, everything will be fine. Everything was not fine though, and it becomes clear that things were not stable for quite some time. Scottie (Amara Miller), Matt’s youngest daughter, is acting out in school because she has no outlet. Alexandra is into drugs and older men because she does not have a great relationship with her mother or father. Matt’s wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) has a love of extreme sports and other men because Matt is so absent in their marriage; he does not give her the excitement she seeks. Matt cannot see any of this though, until it is too late (at least to save his marriage). It takes Elizabeth being put into a coma, and Matt being forced to leave his comfortable office for him to notice that he was not being a great father or husband.
Beneath Matt’s methodical, practical exterior, there is a Hawaiian boy with a great respect for his family, and everything they have given him. He begins to realize that he was given a great gift, and it is not the valuable land; it is what the land represents. This land has been passed down from generation to generation of Kings, and it is now in his hands alone to decide its fate. Much like his parents, and their parents before them, Matt now understands that he has the chance to pass on something great to his daughters, and to his wife. Money is power, and money is freedom, but it is not the money itself that is important. Matt’s father-in-law Scott (Robert Forster) is very angry with Matt for never spoiling Elizabeth. Scott accuses Matt of being a miser, and that Elizabeth would have been a much happier woman if Matt would have bought Elizabeth her own boat, and let her go on shopping sprees. Scott may look at things from the wrong perspective, thinking that money buys happiness, but ultimately he knew that his daughter was unhappy, and that is all that matters. Alexandra brings her friend Sid (Nick Krause) along for the family’s “adventures.” Sid is a dimwitted teen that sounds as you would expect a stoned bro (for definition of “bro”, please see a frat house) to sound. At one point Matt is driving his car while Sid and Alexandra sit in the back seat. Matt asks if they can keep their hands off each other, and Sid makes the insensitive suggestion that maybe Elizabeth cheated on Matt because he does not believe in touching. Of course this is meant to be comical, and everyone in the audience half laughed/half gasped, but it is one of those appalling/comedic moments that resonate with people. Sid may be a moron, but he unknowingly says something very insightful. In the moment, Matt is made very upset by the comment, but he begins to see that Sid and Scott are right. Sid suggested that Matt was not there for his wife physically, and Scott insisted that Matt was not there for his wife financially. Matt is an intelligent guy, and he is able to put the pieces together and see that it was wrong for his wife to cheat on him, but he was not taking care of her; he was not there for his family.
The film opens with shots of Hawaii and its people. Matt King is informing the audience that they are misinformed about his environment. Everything on Hawaii is not laid back, and easy, he tells us. Things may seem different on the outside, but inside, Hawaiians react the same way that everyone else does. Hell, he has not even been surfing in 15 years. Who needs more proof than that? What we come to learn throughout the film though, is that Hawaii is a different place. It may not be the paradise that everyone imagines it to be, but the people certainly have a different way for dealing with things. Scottie is acting out in school, and has even been bullying a girl via text messages. The girl’s mother calls Matt up, has a civil conversation with him, and invites him and Scottie over so that Scottie may apologize to her daughter. Matt and Scottie drive to the house of the girl that she bullied, there is a very civil (though uncomfortable) exchange between the two families, and the problem is resolved. Alexandra is a wild child that is prone to cursing and acting out. She seems like every other wild 17-year-old, but she has this sort of calm to her that is undoubtedly Hawaiian. Alexandra lashes out, and she is very angry, but she is also sweet, calm, and level headed at the same time; she is a walking contradiction. Even when there are millions upon millions of dollars at stake, Hawaiians are portrayed as laid back. Cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges) wants Matt to side with him on the selling of the land, and tells Matt that if he does not, the family will come after him (legally). Matt smiles and responds that even if they do, it will only bring them closer. To me, and to Matt as well by the end of The Descendants, Hawaiians really do deal with issues a little bit differently.
Matt’s view of his world is clearly a little bit different at the beginning of the film than at the end (obviously, and if this were not the case, why would there be a movie). Matt’s reaction to Cousin Hugh’s threat is in sharp contrast to the metaphor that Matt uses earlier to describe his family: “A family feels exactly like an archipelago, separate but part of a whole, and always drifting slowly apart.” I was searching for this exact quote, and I came across several “critics” putting down the narration track. The reviewers, whom I will not give the benefit of linking their article and giving them hits, felt that the narration was shallow and boring. As we speak, I’m passing around a hat so that we may collectively buy them a clue. I find Matt King’s narration very insightful into not only how he views his family, but also how he deals with his life at the beginning of the film. The narration starts to tune out when Matt is told Elizabeth is dying. Matt must face reality, and he must start to tell people that Elizabeth is not going to get better. Matt confronts Elizabeth (while she is in a coma, of course) about the infidelity, and he is livid; he yells at her, and tells her how he feels. The narration goes away, because Matt King no longer has the luxury of staying in his own safe bubble. As the story progresses Matt figures out that his view of Hawaii and his family was wrong, so he begins to change. Payne’s use of narration is brilliant in this film. Often times a narration track give us insight into a character through what they say, and Payne indeed does tell us several things about Matt in the narration, but it is what Matt does not say that speaks volumes. Payne challenges the normal implementation of narration and uses the conventions of the device itself to subtly show a shift in Matt. Nearly every other screenwriter and filmmaker using a narration track would have carried it throughout the entire film, but Payne boldly snaps those conventions in half with chilling results (chilling in that it works so unbelievably well).
The Descendants is deceptively laid back. The entire cast does a brilliant job of taking strong, complex feelings and burying them beneath a surface of Hawaiian calm. Much of the buzz surrounding this film is in regards to Shailene Woodley’s performance as Alexandra. Woodley handily makes the leap from small-screen-soap (she currently stars in The Secret Life of the American Teenager) to big screen drama. Alexandra is perhaps the most complex character in the film. She is wild and out of control, rebelling against her father and especially her unfaithful mother. She is angry, sad, hurt, and calm all at the same time. She has to be a positive big sister to Scottie (though she is not always successful), and as their mother is incapacitated, she must take over as the family matriarch. Woodley is getting many nods of approval, enthusiastic nods, but I cannot help but feel she still is not getting the credit that she is due. Her character is so complex, and so multi-faceted, she should be getting acclaim on the level that Hailee Steinfeld was given last year for her turn as Mattie in the Coen Brothers True Grit (2010). Woodley more than holds her own with Clooney, and there are so many subtle aspects of her character. Steinfeld was great in True Grit, but her performance was much easier to notice and applaud because it was right there in your face. Payne directs Woodley to an almost ballet-like performance that will be remembered for years.
Alexander Payne leaves us with Scottie, Alexandra, and Matt sitting on the couch together, eating ice cream and watching March of the Penguins (2005). Morgan Freeman tells us in narration from the television set that Antarctica was once a tropical paradise. Earlier in the film, Matt takes his family to look at the land his ancestors passed down to him and says, “Everything has its time.” We all have a limited time here on Earth; we all have a limited time with each other. Someday, paradise will freeze over.