I never seem to have enough time for all the pop-culture things I want to do; there are always more movies, more TV shows to catch up with. So it should tell you how much I like "The Descendants" when I say I have seen it twice so far. Nor is my admiration unique, since it is expected to do very well in the Academy Awards nominations tomorrow, and George Clooney's performance has reportedly made him one of the favorites for a best actor Oscar. (One of his major competitors may be Brad Pitt in "Moneyball." More about that film and performance in another post.)
Directed by Alexander Payne, and based on a book, "The Descendants" is a deeply felt movie about loss and choice in life, and especially about the feelings that a man may face when suddenly pushed into a single-father role. The first time I saw this was in close proximity to another suddenly-single-dad movie, "We Bought a Zoo" with Matt Damon*, and the contrast was stark. While "We Bought a Zoo" had some merits, it felt theatrical in comparison to the naturalness of "The Descendants," contrived and too smoothly resolved when "The Descendants" knew about the uncertainty that lingers even after post-loss catharsis. And, while "The Descendants" is accomplished across the board, Clooney is remarkable; he was even better on second viewing than the first, when I could watch even more closely his character's confusion, emotional containment and struggles with his own mounting rage.
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In "The Descendants," Clooney plays Matt King, a lawyer in Hawaii whose wife is comatose after a boating accident. As he awaits her recovery, Matt must oversee his 10-year-old daughter, who is dealing with her mother's situation in aggressive ways, and later with his 17-year-old daughter, who has a bevy of problems, not least of which is conflict with her mother. At the same time, Matt oversees a trust for his family involving a huge tract of Hawaiian land; he has to decide whether to sell the land, and to whom, or to keep it and risk losing it all in seven years when the trust will lose it. While the parenting and the business are enough by themselves for one man to handle, Matt is confronted with more. His wife is not going to get better; in fact, she is going to die and it's time to take her off life support. And, while it's clear almost immediately that their marriage has been less than ideal, Matt learns more about her than anyone would want to know -- and has to figure out how to deal with that information.
The dealing, all the dealing, takes Matt, his daughters and his oldest girl's friend around Hawaii, talking with friends and family, searching for answers -- basically a long quest by Matt on his way to a decision. Along the way, we see more about him: how uneasy he is with direct displays of emotion and affection, how strained his relations are with some other people (notably his hard-edged father-in-law, played by Robert Forster), how fundamentally clueless he is about anything outside of a legal document; indeed, at least once he seeks shelter in paperwork, and his quest finds him turning to odd confidants, since he has apparently made no real friends on his own.
It's not that Matt is a bad guy, but he is a flawed one, and especially on second viewing "The Descendants" made very clear that the problems in Matt's marriage rested heavily on him. Clooney as Matt creates an assumption of likability which the script nibbles at, and which Clooney himself takes advantage of; the other side of Clooney cool is an emotional remoteness, and that is what Matt has to deal with. It's not even clear that he makes the right decision about the land, or what his specific motivations are; instead, it's noteworthy mainly that he has made a decision at all.
The movie takes full advantage of its Hawaiian landscape, both its untouched beauty and its urban sprawl; it at once made me long to go back there and reminded me of the drabness of its cities and the annoyances of its traffic. But the real virtue of the movie is how personally real it feels, how right in its seeming arbitrariness. Matt tells another character "Nothing just happens, only to be told back, "Everything just happens." And it does. You or I can no more predict what will happen in our lives than Matt has been able to predict his. And in its messiness, in the open-endedness of it, The Descendants presents lives worth watching in all their laughter, pain and uncertainty.
*Damon also found himself in a single-parent situation in "Contagion," Steven Soderbergh's bleak global-plague exercise.