Descending and ascending

AO and I recently saw The Descendants. I had heard mixed things – well, actually, I had heard two very curt reviews: one labeled it close to excellent and the other deemed it so-so. I knew Aaron wasn’t psyched to see it, but he didn’t put up much of a fight so off we went! I’m still processing my thoughts and feelings on the film so please forgive me if this post is un peu disjointed.

Let me start by stating that if I had put it together that The Descendants was from the same man, Alexander Payne, responsible for Sideways, I’m not sure I would have even entered the theater. I found Sideways to be full of whiny, humorless middle-aged male crap for which I have almost no tolerance. Not to mention that I happen to like Merlot. Anyway, Payne’s resume also includes Election, not one of my favorite flicks, as well as a couple of Playboy videos. Had I known all this, I don’t know if I would have seen the movie at all, but if I had, I know I would have anticipated, at a minimum, a sexist or misogynistic vibe emanating from the screen. So, it’s probably a good thing I didn’t know anything about Payne, instead thinking only that the movie would probably strike me as being somewhere between excellent and so-so.

If I had to rate it as one of those two, I would smack it with the label ‘excellent.’ But let me back up. We settled into the theater with a bag of pregnant-lady popcorn (previously dubbed just ‘popcorn’) and a tasty cold Diet Coke (caffeine!). Gotta love Sundance for many reasons, not least of which are the real butter and Coke products the concessions stand offers. This movie snuck up on me, in the way that life tends to, I suppose. One minute I was munching happily away on my popcorn and then next I was weeping quietly, thinking about how hard life can be. Anyway, without any spoiling I think I can safely say the narrative of the film is as follows: George Clooney plays Matt King, a real estate attorney in Hawaii, who is married with two daughters, Alexandra, 17, and Scottie, 10. His somewhat estranged wife, Elizabeth, has recently been in a boating accident and is in a severe coma. Instead of tending to his wife and children for the last who-knows-how-many-years, Matt has buried himself in work. He became, or always was (we don’t know), the back-up parent (his term).  Because of Elizabeth’s coma, Matt must become the primary caregiver. But this isn’t a Mr. Mom tale (love that movie, though!) or a How Will a Man Raise Daughters Alone? movie or even a Regarding Henry-type Work-Isn’t-As-Important-As-Family story. In fact, it’s nothing close to any of those paradigms for formerly absentee father films. This movie, instead, is about love and marriage and relationships and forgiveness and frailty and humanity and weakness and responsibility. It’s about care-taking in the truly best possible way. But let me back up.

While Elizabeth is literally comatose, Matt learns she had been cheating on him. The news floors him, but he is clearly more surprised, angry and resentful than heartbroken or sad. Matt copes with the news by trying to learn as much as possible about the man with whom his wife cheated, deciding he must confront the interloper in person, if only to relay to him the fact his lover is in a coma. This MacGuffin device is useful and relatable and, like most MacGuffins, ultimately quite irrelevant. It is what Matt learns about himself, his daughters and life while in search of his wife’s paramour that is the point of The Descendants.

Overlaying all of this, though, is Matt’s obligation as sole executor of a trust that holds an inordinate amount of beautiful, pristine land on Kauai. The beneficiaries of the trust are about a dozen or so of Matt’s cousins; the trust contains the family’s significant land ownings. The trust is in a precarious position as it may not hold the land in perpetuity, so Matt and his cousins are considering selling the land to comply with the law and, as luck would have it, to make them all very wealthy. The problem is, of course, the land is supremely beautiful, untouched and, well, paradise. Through his cinematography, Payne does an excellent job of driving home the point he had Matt extol at the beginning of the movie: Hawaii is beautiful, but it is inhabited by humans; no matter where humans are, life will be complicated and ugly, painful and hard. The land held by the trust is remarkable in its stark contrast to the other Hawaii Payne shows us, the one that looks more like something we’d recognize around us on the mainland: Matt’s dirty pool & his cluttered office, Alexandra’s utilitarian boarding school dorm, Scottie’s classmate’s house or Elizabeth’s stale hospital room. The Kings’ Hawaii is both beautiful and messy. And like all of us, Hawaii needs someone to tend to it, to care for it, or at least to look in on it, once in a while.  

To me, The Descendants resonated as a tale of love and loss, reminding me that to love and to hurt, to cause pain and to mend, are innately part of our collective human life. As I continue to struggle with my own guilt at having hurt others and with the pain I hold at having been hurt, I appreciated and relished the movie’s reminder that we all hurt the ones we love, whether intentionally or callously, but that we all have the power to forgive, to heal and the obligation to wrap those closest to us in a blanket of safety and love.

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2 Responses to “Descending and ascending”


  1. 1 Jane Roe December 9, 2011 at 9:09 am

    Lovely review. I have decided that I must see this film based upon what you said. Also loved the MacGuffin reference. It reminded me of being back in school teaching Psycho in media/film.

  2. 2 kateandgracie December 9, 2011 at 10:20 am

    Yes! I believe I first learned of the beloved MacGuffin in my high school film class with Psycho!!


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