erik lundegaard

The Descendants
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The Descendants (2011)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Everyone says that comedy is tragedy plus time, but in “The Descendants” writer-director Alexander Payne removes time from the equation. A woman—a mother, wife and daughter—is dying in a hospital bed, having spent the last year of her life cheating on her husband, and we find ourselves laughing out loud. Payne creates comedy out of tragedy as it’s happening.

Fifteen minutes in, I admit, I thought Payne was flubbing it. I thought the critics who were touting “The Descendants” as a best picture contender had blown it. Then the movie began to work and didn’t stop.

Matt King (George Clooney) is a self-professed “back-up parent” in Hawaii who suddenly has his hands full when his wife, Liz (Patricia Hastie), suffers a head injury during a boating accident and goes into a coma. Meanwhile, his 10-year-old daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), is sending nasty text messages to friends. When he goes to retrieve his 17-year-old daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), from the Hawaii Pacific Institute, a kind of summer reform school, he finds her drunk and playing midnight golf and unsympathetic about mom in the hospital. “Fuck mom!” she shouts.

At which point, Matt, in voice-over, wonders how he always winds up with such self-destructive women.

If there’s an oddity to the movie—beyond the removal of time from the comedy/tragedy equation—it’s that almost everyone seems to think Liz will wake from her coma. After 21 days of nothing, they all seem to assume she’ll be fine. The guy who was driving the boat when she had the accident, Troy (surf champ Laird Hamilton in a surprise, low-key cameo), says he visited her, prayed with her, and saw her hand move. Her best friend Kai Mitchell (Mary Birdsong) puts make-up on her. Both children act as bratty as ever, as if mom is simply on vacation.

By this point, though, Matt knows Liz won’t wake up, and, per her living will, she will soon be taken off life support, and it’s up to him to break the news to everyone. The first person he tells is his 17-year-old, Alex, who is too busy talking on her cell and complaining about the leaves in the backyard pool to listen to him. So he tells her while she’s gliding along in the pool. For a second, she looks stunned; then she dives beneath the surface and her face crumples and she swims powerful strokes as if to get away from the bad news. When she surfaces she’s gone maybe five feet. “Why did you tell me in the goddamned pool!” she cries. It’s a great scene with a great actress. Who is this? I thought.

Matt screws up the second telling, too. Alexandra has just given him tit for tat—her bad news for his. “You really don’t have a clue, do you?” she asks, then drops the news that will propel the rest of the movie: “Dad, Mom was cheating on you—that’s what we fought about.” The family lives in Hawaii, and Clooney spends most of the movie in baggy shorts and shirts and sandals. Even his face has a kind of bagginess to it. He’s still movie-star handsome but there’s a layer of puffiness there that you won’t find in “Ocean’s Eleven” but probably see every morning in the mirror. After Alex drops her news bomb, Matt, in a kind of daze, struggles to put on his sandals, then does a kind of run/shuffle for blocks. It’s quite funny, but so inappropriate that one doesn’t feel like laughing. Yet. Is he, like Alexandra, simply running away from bad news? Is he running to the house of the man who cuckolded him? Neither. He winds up at the Mitchells, Kai and Mark (Rob Huebel), who are in the midst of their own absurd argument about cocktails (nice touch) to find out what they know about the affair. Turns out they know it all. Kai continues to defend Liz, how she was lonely, etc., but Matt isn’t having it, and he angrily breaks the news. “You were putting lipstick on a corpse!” he shouts, which causes Kai to break down. Something about her crying, as with his running, tickles us, and, though it was still quite inappropriate, I burst out laughing. The gates were open—for both Matt and me. He was free to find out about his wife’s lover and I was free to laugh.

Good thing. The movie keeps getting funnier. It also gets more poignant.

Matt has three tasks: 1) to find his wife’s lover, Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard); 2) to tell Liz’s loved ones that she’s dying so they can say their good-byes; and 3) and to preside over the sale of a huge tract of undeveloped land that his family has owned for generations. The buyers are either a Chicago developer, who put in the highest bid, or a Hawaiian developer, who will keep the money in Hawaii. Various cousins in baggy shorts, shirts, and flip-flops, all of whom will come into millions, as will Matt, have their say—including Beau Bridges as Cousin Hugh, seemingly channeling his brother Jeff’s Dude. Some of the cousins don’t want to sell at all.

Of these three tasks, the third task provides some background on Hawaiian history, and gives us some spectacular shots of undeveloped coastal land, but it’s not particularly intriguing. The second task is a tough one, and poignant, and will resonate with most moviegoers, but dramatically it’s a dead end. It’s the first task that drives the movie.

When Alexandra questions why he’s seeking his wife’s lover, Matt merely seems confused. “I just want to see his face,” he says at one point. To punch him? To tell him the bad news so he can say his good-byes as well? Matt doesn’t know himself, so the movie doesn’t know, so we don’t know. What will happen when they meet? Will it feel true? Will it resonate? Can it do both? The possibilities aren’t multiple choice and the impulse is universal because Matt doesn’t know what drives him.

On this task and others, Alex insists upon coming along, which means Scottie has to come along. The fourth member of their group, or troupe, as in a comedy, is Alex’s friend Sid (Nick Krause), a laid-back dude, part-stoner, part-stupid, with a blissed-out face and a wide smile. When he first meets Matt, he hugs him.

Sid (smiling): What’s up, bro?
Matt (not): Don’t ever do that again.

When Matt breaks the bad news to Liz’s father, Scott (Robert Forster), Sid doesn’t know enough to stay in the background. The mother, Alice (Barbara L. Southern), teeters out, and it’s apparent she’s not all there. Alzheimer’s, one assumes. She doesn’t know her son-in-law, she doesn’t know her grandchildren. When Scott talks about visiting Elizabeth in the hospital, she thinks he’s talking about Queen Elizabeth and gets excited, causing Sid to laugh out loud. Confronted, Sid compounds his error by continuing to smile and insisting that Alice must be joking. Right? “I’m going to hit you,” Scott says matter-of-factly, and then: Pow! Next scene, Sid isn’t smiling. More laughter.

But there’s redemption in “The Descendants,” too. On another island, in pursuit of Scott Speer, Matt can’t sleep, Sid can’t sleep, and they have a midnight talk in the living room. Sid insists he’s smarter than Matt realizes. “You are about a hundred miles from smart,” Matt answers. But as the talk deepens, we learn, with Matt, that Sid’s father recently died. At first, Sid says this with a shrug that attempts nonchalance. Then he owns up. “November 24th,” he says. “Drunk driver. Actually, both drivers were drunk.” Up to this point, Sid has been a picked-upon figure, comic relief, yet he’s never used his own recent tragedy as a means to sympathy, or as a kind of justification for boorish behavior (“Hey, my own dad died, too!”), or as a way to muscle in on the Kings’ tragedy. He allows their tragedy to be itself. He may not be smart, but he’s something.

So is Scott. In the hospital room, he lambastes his son-in-law for his stinginess. (In an earlier scene, Matt, in voiceover, mentions that he, like his father, never spent what he didn’t make himself. “Give your children enough to do something,” he says, “but not enough to do nothing.”) Scott thinks if Matt had just bought Liz a better boat, she’d be alive. He’s angry about it. He calls Matt names, and calls Liz a faithful, devoted wife who deserved more, and for a moment Matt rises up, about to shatter his father-in-law’s illusions. The he calms down and says, “Yes, she deserved more,” and leads the kids out into the hallway, where Sid says, “That guy is such a prick! Was he always like that?” Even as Matt admits as much, he sees, and we see, through the door, Scott, burdened with a wife with Alzheimer’s, saying good-bye forever to his beloved daughter. A prick, yes, but a loving man who is losing everything. We all have that which humanizes us.

Does Brian Speer? That’s the question for most of the movie. Liz, in love, wanted to leave Matt for Brian. Is he the “more” she deserved?

Information comes in pieces. Matt discovers Brian is renting a cottage from one of his cousins. Then he discovers Matt has a wife, Julie (Judy Greer), and two boys. Then he discovers that when the sale on the undeveloped land goes through, Brian, brother-in-law to the Hawaiian developer, will make millions selling it for him.

Is that why Brian was sleeping with Liz? To get close to Matt and his deal?

Matt doesn’t find out until he gets close to Brian, on the cottage porch, where he tells him, “Elizabeth is dying. Oh yeah: Fuck you.”

Inside, they have this nice exchange:

Brian: It just happened.
Matt: Nothing just happens.
Brian: Everything just happens.

He wasn’t using her to get to Matt. But did he love her? When Matt asks him directly, Brian hesitates; and in that hesitation Matt has his answer. Brian was never going to leave his wife and family for Liz. He was just fucking her. It’s an answer 100 times sadder than if he’d broken down and cried. It speaks to Liz’s self-delusion and loneliness. Later, when Matt agrees with Scott that Liz deserved more, he means not just more than himself but more than Brian Speer.

The news also allows Matt to find it in himself forgive Liz.

Three times during the movie he speaks to her comatose figure . The first time it’s practical and family-related. “Please, Liz, just wake up,” he says, his hands full with girls he can’t control. “I’m ready to be a real husband and father.”

The second time, after he finds out about the affair, he lets loose his anger. “Who are you?” he shouts. “The only thing I know for sure is you’re a goddamned liar!

The final time, after this bargaining and anger (mixed with denial and depression), we get acceptance. We get forgiveness and love. He kisses her parched lips. “Good-bye Elizabeth,” he says. “My love, my friend, my pain, my joy. Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye.”

We think that’s the ending—and it would be a good ending—but we continue on to a scene where Matt and his two girls silently release Elizabeth’s ashes into a Hawaiian bay, possibly where the accident occurred, then place leis on the water, which we see from below.

We think that’s the ending—and it would’ve been a good ending—but we get another scene. Scottie’s on the couch watching “March of the Penguins,” narrated by Morgan Freeman. Matt joins her with two bowls of ice cream, strawberry and mocha chip. They share a blanket. Is it the same blanket Liz used in the hospital? Alex joins them, and, without smiles, with eyes fixed on the TV, all three share bowls of ice cream and the blanket. Earlier in the movie, Matt compared a family to a Hawaiian archipelago: connected, but separate, and forever drifting apart. Here, for an ordinary moment anyway, we see them together. We think that’s the ending, and it is, and it’s a good ending.

What I’ve relayed isn’t exactly funny but the movie is. The script helps. The character of Sid helps. The character of Scottie, creating her “sand boobs” helps. George Clooney helps. A bit too much? At times, he plays it a bit “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”—as in this scene where he first spots Brian’s cottage:

Shailene Woodley, who isn’t funny, is a revelation. There’s not a false note in her performance. Is there buzz for a supporting actress nom? One hopes.

As for the land deal? Matt, as sole trustee, ultimately nixes it, screwing over Brian Speer, but one wonders if it’s a necessary subplot. You could cut out the whole thing and the main storyline wouldn’t change. At the same time, you’d lose something ineffable. Part of it is Hawaiian history, as I said, and part of it is the movie’s title. But it’s more. Yes, these are the descendants, this King and his two girls, and all of their cousins; and they’ve been entrusted with this great wealth; and the question is what they do with it. Most of us aren’t going to come into millions, like the Kings, but the dynamic, the dilemma, the perspective, still resonates, because it’s universal. All of us are descendants. All of us are entrusted with this great wealth—the wealth of the world. And the question is what we do with it.

—November 26, 2011

© 2011 Erik Lundegaard