Tonight’s feature for Mannion Family Night, The Descendants. My review from last year’s Oscar season:
Kilroy is here in Paradise. George Clooney making a fool of himself brilliantly as cuckolded lawyer Matt King spying on his comatose wife’s lover in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants.
The Descendants presented the blonde and me with a rarity in our many, many years of going to the movies together. A movie we disagree on. She liked it. A lot. I liked it. A little.
The little I liked included the beautiful Hawaiian scenery and the performances of George Clooney---except for the scene where he cries---and Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller as his daughters and Nick Krause as Sid, their not as stoned as you take him for tagalong friend, and most of the supporting cast, especially Beau Bridges paying homage to his brother Jeff as the Dude in retirement.
The lot I didn’t like I didn’t hate. I just felt an emptiness at the heart of the story.
Clooney plays Matt King, a workaholic lawyer whose wife is in coma after suffering a head injury in a boating accident. In voice-over narration, Matt tells us that before the accident he was a failure as a husband and father, distant and neglectful, thinking that all he needed to do for his family was be a good provider and leaving it up to his wife to take care of the rest.
Matt isn’t being hard on himself about his failure as a father. He did fail his daughters by failing to pay attention to them. He took them for granted and he took it for granted that they were being well-looked after and well-taken care of and well-loved by their mother. Things were more problematic with his wife, Elizabeth.
Matt took her for granted too, but worse than that, he left the raising of their daughters solely to her without noticing she wasn’t any good at it.
At first glance, The Descendants appears to have the plot of a Lifetime TV movie. How is a family to cope when the person holding them together can’t be there to do it? That’s the question Matt’s asking himself when the movie opens. He doesn’t believe he’s up to the task he took it for granted Elizabeth was doing. So, expectedly, a lot of what happens in The Descendants is Matt learning---or at least trying hard to learn---how to be the kind of good father and good man he should have been all along. But it quickly becomes clear that he’s not filling in for Elizabeth. He’s replacing her, in the nick of time.
Matt calls himself the back-up parent. As in back-up quarterback. He expects that when (if) she recovers she’ll take over again as the family’s star and starter.
It doesn’t occur to him that she needs to be benched.
Elizabeth was a neglectful mother and unfaithful wife. Matt kept himself distracted with work. Elizabeth distracted herself with play and with playing around.
Elizabeth wasn’t just a domestic failure, like Matt. She doesn’t appear to have been a particularly admirable or even likable person. Objectively, her loss to the family wouldn’t be a great one and might possibly even be a blessing.
The actual question the plot asks is What happens when a family realizes it’s better off without one of its members?
A hard but intriguing question. The emptiness I felt at the heart of the movie was that there isn’t even an attempt to answer it. The film seems aware of itself, as films directed by Alexander Payne always seem to be, and it seems to know the question is there to be raised. But it refuses to confront it and seems to expect us to ignore it, as well. The Descendants ambles amiably along, as if it doesn’t matter that Elizabeth was on her way to removing herself from the family well before her accident took her out of the picture and good riddance to her.
There’s one scene in which Alexandra, the Kings’ eldest daughter, who is angry at both her parents, with good reason, comes close to admitting she doesn’t want her mother back (which is not the same as wishing she won’t recover) and forcing Matt to consider that he might not want her back either. But the movie immediately veers off into screwball comedy and when it finally returns to the domestic tragedy it started with, all has been forgotten if not forgiven and the tears flow.
It’s ironic that the plot puts us in the position of rooting for Elizabeth to wake up for the sake of Matt and her daughters while making us suspect that, whether or not she recovers, either way, one result will be the same. The family will lose her.
What perplexed me is that we’re not given a rooting interest in Elizabeth getting better for her sake.
In real life we would care that children were facing the loss of their mother without thinking that the mother in question wasn’t much of a loss as a mother. We would care that a real young woman might die or spend the rest of her life in a coma or brain-damaged and only partially herself ever again, regardless of how unlikeable we might find her if we knew her. But this is fiction. We can be callous about the fate of fictions without guilt. Elizabeth isn’t a character we miss while she’s not able to take an active part in her own story or that we expect we’ll miss if she doesn’t come back into it.
I’m not saying it would have been better if she’d been written as a saint. It might have been more pleasant---or I might have been less put off---if the question had been taken off the table by her having been made an averagely nice and decent person, but Elizabeth could have been an even more problematic character and that would have been fine with me too. In fact, it might even have been better as we’d have had to worry about how much trouble her recovery might cause. We can’t imagine what place this woman would have in this family as it’s reformed itself in her absence and it would be interesting to wonder how she would go about trying to fit in and if her husband and daughters could or would even try to make room for her.
Payne has a history of making movies---Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways---about difficult characters he manages to make sympathetic despite themselves and their bad behavior. But, as far as we can tell, Elizabeth isn’t that difficult. Just the opposite. She’s rather easy, to figure out and dismiss, one of those types friends call free-spirits in order to excuse their frivolousness, selfishness, and irresponsibility.
To be fair, she has no one to make a case for her. She can’t speak for herself and her family has little to say on her behalf. Matt has spent so much time in his office that he has almost no idea what was going on at home. Alexandra knows only a little more because she was shipped off to what looks like the most lackadaisically run prep school in America and that little she does know she doesn’t want to tell Matt or, really, admit to herself she knows. And Scottie, the other daughter, is too young to know what she knows. She loves her mother and thinks the world of her because she is her mother. But she has no insight into her mother’s character.
This leaves it up to four people to defend her and tell us what she was like and none of them are particularly admirable or likable themselves. Her bully of a too doting father. Her slightly ditzy and enabling best friend whose husband should be alarmed at how vicariously thrilled she is by Elizabeth’s cheating on Matt. Her boat racing buddy, a forty-something surfer dude with a chemically-enhanced mop of sun-blonded hair. And her lover, who besides being a cheat of a husband himself, is also a scheming realtor who may have been sleeping with Elizabeth in order to get useful inside information on a land deal Matt and his cousins are trying to work out, raising the possibility that Elizabeth might have in on the scheme to swindle Matt herself or that, because this creep is so obvious, she was something of a dope. These people are not the most persuasive advocates. The best they have to say about her is that she could be nice and was fun to be around when she was having her own way. Otherwise, she seems to have been as shallow and self-centered as they are. One way or another, they all accuse Matt of failing Elizabeth by not spoiling her the way she deserved to be spoiled by showering her with money to spend on her hobbies and taking her on expensive vacations.
What this means is that we're given scene after scene of characters we do like and care about breaking their hearts over a character it’s hard to feel is worth their trouble. This would have made for an interesting problem comedy or an ironic tragedy. But, to continue my initial complaint, the movie moves through these scenes as if it’s telling a very different, more conventional and sentimental sort of story, leading up to the what ought to be infamous rather than lauded crying scene.
I thought those tears rolling down Clooney’s cheeks stained what is otherwise a brilliant comedic performance.
The Descendants is at its best when it isn’t about what it’s supposedly about, when it puts aside what’s happening with Elizabeth and takes up subplots in which her injury and the question of her recovery are irrelevant: Matt’s delicate negotiations with his many cousins as they try to figure out what to do with a prime piece of real estate they’ve collectively inherited. (This is where Bridges doing his sly impersonation of his brother Jeff comes in.) And Matt’s sudden, mad, obsessive quest to track down Elizabeth’s lover and confront him in order to…in order to…he doesn’t know what, but something.
It’s in these scenes that Clooney gets to do what he does best, move.
Clooney always carries himself well. But that often means carrying himself awkwardly or goofily or---never mind the overdone comparisons to Grant and Gable---with excessive grace like Chaplin, like Keaton, like Groucho, and like…well…Grant.
There are several key moments to pay attention to the man in motion.
The first is when, after learning his wife has had an affair, he runs to her best friend’s house to demand the details, trying to put on his shoes as he goes and not quite getting them on so that his stride is thrown all off and he skips and half-hops dorkily down the winding street.
The next is another running scene, this time it’s Matt jogging on a beach. It’s a deceptively simple and superficially meaningless shot but Clooney has Matt chugging along in a stiff, regimented way that tells us this a non-athlete who has learned everything he knows about exercise from a book. He looks foolish until he passes Elizabeth’s lover jogging the other way and then he looks exactly how he must have looked to Elizabeth after she fell for the realtor, smaller, weaker, older, and foolish.
The third is when he’s tracked down the lover and attempts to spy on him and the wife and small children Matt’s surprised to learn the man has from behind a tall hedge. Clooney raises and lowers his head to Kilroy-like levels but it’s not just the image he presents that’s funny, it’s also the perfectly timed and exquisite slowness of the raising and lowering.
And the fourth is when, after having finagled his way into the lover’s house and unexpectedly hitting it off with the man’s wife, Matt impulsively kisses her. It’s a desperate move, all he can think to do to get a little bit of revenge, and he regrets it immediately, while moving in for the kiss. Matt tries to pull back but inertia carries him forward and he winds up more or less punching her in the mouth with his mouth. But what Clooney lets us see is that not only has Matt made the wrong move, he wouldn’t have known how to pull it off even if it was the right move or if his conscience hadn’t tripped him up. Matt is a man who doesn’t know how to kiss anyone except his wife and he’s out of practice doing that. Basically, Clooney convinces us that although he looks like George Clooney, Matt is no George Clooney. He’s an average guy who has loved one woman in his life.
In addition to those moments, Clooney deadpans and double-takes with the best of them. In my review of The Ides of March I wrote about Clooney’s penchant for playing weak men. The specific weaknesses and the sources of those weaknesses vary from character to character. In The Descendants, Matt’s main weakness is that he isn’t emotionally equipped to handle the catastrophe that has shaken his family nearly to pieces. But he’s hobbled as well by his not having the information he needs to deal with things. He doesn’t know how to be a good father to his daughters because he doesn’t know them. He doesn’t know exactly how he failed Elizabeth or how he’ll go about doing better by her if and when she recovers because he doesn’t know what she was thinking and feeling before her accident. Consequently, he’s continually slammed with information he should have had as a matter of course but which now takes him completely by surprise and leaves him (that is, has Clooney) staring hilariously stunned and speechless at the just about every turn.
Besides Bridges, the small but effective supporting cast includes Matthew Lillard as Elizabeth’s smarmy and craven lover, Judy Greer as his sweet and wounded wife who is clearly the kind of wife and mother whose loss would be a terrible blow to her family and who in a few brief scenes with Clooney and Woodley has us wondering if the real tragedy here is that the wrong set of spouses met first, and Robert Forster who as Elizabeth’s father demonstrates how skilled Payne is at making us sympathize with difficult and unlikable characters without hedging on how difficult and unlikable they are.
Miller is a natural as Scottie, the budding artist and determined eccentric. And I really liked Krause as Alexandra’s sweetly goofed-up friend Sid whom Matt naturally suspects of hanging around in hopes of sleeping with his daughter but who turns out to be there because he’s a good friend and being there in times of sorrow and trouble are what friends are for.
But my favorite was Woodley as Alexandra King, the seeming rebel who discovers, to her terror and amazement and eventual satisfaction, that her natural place in the family had been blocked by her mother’s presence and now the way is clear for her to assume it. (There’s that unacknowledged irony again.) She’s the caretaker and her father’s competent and reliable right hand. It’s amusing to watch Woodley and Clooney develop their rhythm as Alexandra and Matt fumble their way towards an understanding. What eventually happens is that Woodley becomes Clooney’s straight man. This requires her to keep up and keep in step, figuratively and literally, and she does beautifully. They move very well together.
Alexander Payne talks about something else I liked---a lot---about the movie, the final scene, in an interview with NPR.
The Descendants, directed by Alexander Payne, screenplay by Payne and Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Robert Forster, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, and Beau Bridges. Available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.