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Film Review: The Descendants

The Descendants (2011; Directed by Alexander Payne)

The Descendants is the kind of film that at least a handful of critics inevitably pronounce, usually in a tone of self-satisfied relief, as being “for adults”. This epithet does not imply that it’s sexually explicit, violent, gory, or otherwise full of “strong” content, but that it calmly, realistically depicts reasonably normal (read: socioeconomically comfortable white) people proceeding with their lives and all the struggles and anxieties and hurt therein. It might also imply, in a double-edged way, that the movie is frankly a bit boring. This need not be the case; a movie can be about problems of a smaller nature than, let’s say, existential threats to the planet or the universe settled by furious fight scenes between superhumans in colourful suits and still not be boring. The Descendants, a movie for adults, is about such human problems. The Descendants is a bit boring.

Alexander Payne has carved a critically-acclaimed arthouse-lite career out of well-made, nicely observed, basically good and fundamentally boring films like The Descendants. Generally adapted from unpretentious contemporary novels (this one is by Kaui Hart Hemmings) and featuring white middle-aged leading men in humbled circumstances coming to terms with any number of difficult things, Payne has settled into a certain recumbent pattern since breaking into independent film prominence with the subtly wicked satire Election. He hasn’t ventured near material with that kind of barbed underbelly since, and The Descendants is no exception.

The personified American male mid-life crisis this time is George Clooney as Matt King, an attorney based in Honolulu, Hawaii. He’s married with two daughters, but as the opening moments of the film tease and subsequent scenes more firmly establish, his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is in a coma after a serious boating accident. As Matt is informed that she will not awake and will soon be removed from life support as per the stipulations of her will, he faces up to his regrets about their relationship and his anticipated struggles in raising his daughters alone. To complicate matters, Matt learns from his 17-year-old daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) that his wife was having an affair with local Oahu real estate agent Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard).

Although Elizabeth’s passing may be imminent, Matt decides to seek out Speer on the island of Kauai, where he is vacationing, to inform him of her condition. He island hops on this species of redemptive quest with his daughters and Alex’s mega-laid-back boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) in tow, a subtly tense family unit with all outward appearances of relaxation (which might be genuine, because how can one be anything but relaxed in Hawaii?). The Kauai backdrop is vital, as Matt is also at the centre of an important land deal on the oldest island in the archipelago. His family holds 25,000 acres of untouched land as a trust, and with the trust due to expire and Matt as sole trustee presiding over a gaggle of disagreeing cousins, a lucrative sale to developers appears imminent.

Elizabeth King’s impending death and the land trust’s impending sale are metaphorically linked by Hemmings and thus by the Oscar-winning adapted screenplay by Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash. The Descendants, as the title suggests, is about legacies, about what we leave behind us when we’re gone. For Matt, his legacy is his daughters and the land, and they become more closely linked in his mind and his heart with his wife dying. A more submerged element of the legacy theme has to do with Hawaii itself, an archipelago taken from its indigenous population by Matt’s own ancestors (a likely role, though not openly implied in the text) in one of America’s more minor imperialist actions. Matt admits that he and his family are extremely haole, a complex and more than a little derogatory native Hawaiian term for off-islanders, especially those of European descent. But they are descended from one of Hawaii’s last indigenous royals as well, and the Kauai land trust came direct from the royal family (this is an autobiographical flourish from Hemmings, who also has such illustrious family history).

Matt’s family legacy is thus inextricably linked with Hawaii, its land and its culture. A voiceover as they fly from one island to another explicitly analogizes his family to an archipelago, scattered and separated but deeply connected, too. These connections are imparted with impeccable visual beauty near the film’s end, as Matt and his daughters paddle out in an outrigger canoe to scatter Elizabeth’s ashes in the Pacific Ocean off Honolulu. Their three leis float together on the shimmering blue surface of the water, shot and composed by Payne from underwater (assuming Elizabeth’s perspective?) as a gorgeous expression of their togetherness, their connection to each other, to the islands, to the dead. Their legacy is one of belonging, which might be a critiquable justification of the history of American colonialism in Hawaii but is still heartfelt despite that.

The Descendants is frequently a lovely movie. Payne and his DP Phedon Papamichael are quite visually capable, though one hardly needs to be when shooting in Hawaii; almost anywhere you point the camera reveals a spectacular panorama, especially in locations like the jaw-dropping Hanalei Bay on Kauai, where Matt tracks down Brian Speer. Clooney expertly conveys Matt’s interconnected thoughts and feelings about his situation, especially his conflicted and dissatisfied reaction to finally meeting Speer. Woodley found her breatkthrough role here, and Robert Forster shows up as Matt’s gruff father-in-law. It serves its themes and emotions well. But what’s it all for? What’s at stake, besides the legacy of a well-off haole lawyer who wears a Hawaiian short and shorts to work? The Descendants is “real”, it’s “for adults”, it’s genuine and sometimes even moving. But there always feels like there ought to be something more to draw the audience in, to implicate us in what is happening in Matt King’s (mostly charmed) life. There never quite is, and that’s a little boring, to be honest.

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