Oscars 2011 Best Picture Nominee: The Descendants
“My friends think that just because we live in Hawaii, we live in paradise. We’re all just out here sipping Mai Tai’s, shaking our hips and catching waves. Are they insane? Do they think we’re immune to life? How can they possibly think our families are less screwed up? Our heartaches, less painful?”
The Descendants is a movie starring George Clooney which is set in Hawaii. But if you’re expecting this movie to be an escapist holiday getaway, you’re wrong. It’s about real-life pain and heartache happening in an island paradise.
Matt King is a Honolulu-based lawyer who has to deal with the fact that his wife Elizabeth is in a hospital comatose from a boat racing accident. On top of that he has the issue of dealing with being the sole family member in charge of 25,000 acres of land on Kauai owned by his family for generations which will expire in seven years. The King family decided to sell the land to a developer, something Matt supports. Matt was never really close with his two daughters and always considers himself to be the ‘back-up parent’. With Elizabeth in a coma, he now has to be the main parent and deal with things like youngest daughter Scottie’s inappropriate behavior with other children and teenage daughter Alex’s drinking. As if his ailing wife and the future of his family’s land isn’t enough to deal with.
Matt had always considered himself a lousy husband and make a mental promise to Elizabeth that he will be a better husband to her once she’s better. Then the news drops. She will never recover. She also has it in her will that she be disconnected shortly from her life support. Matt will no longer be the back-up parents. He decides to tell Alex before Scottie. Alex gives the shocking news that Elizabeth was in an affair just before the accident. He later learns the ‘other man’ is Brian Speer. Matt makes a surprising decision: to find Brian and give him the news the Elizabeth is dying and a chance to say goodbye. He learns that Matt is a real estate agent vacationing in Kauai.
After telling the family of Elizabeth’s eventual death, he goes to Kauai with his daughters and Alex’s slacker guy friend Sid to find Brian. He soon finds Brian jogging on a beach and entering into his family’s vacation resort. Matt also learns from Cousin Hugh that Brian has connections to the developer who they’re about to sell their land to. If sold, Brian Speer will gain a lot of money from commission once it’s developed.
Before confronting Brian, Matt introduces himself to Brian’s wife Judy. Soon Matt is able to meet alone with Brian. He drops him the news he’s Elizabeth’s husband and she will die soon. Brian is shocked of the whole thing. He apologizes for the grief it’s caused the family but that the affair was only a fling and he loves his wife and sons. The fate of the land is finally determined.. The cousins meet to vote on the land mostly in favor of the developer but Matt decides to keep the land for other reasons. He doesn’t regret it even if it means potential lawsuits from Hugh or other cousins.
With the issue of the land over, Matt can now focus solely on the last days of Elizabeth as she’s taken off life support. Scottie hears the news from a nurse. Sid, who first appeared like an idiot, is now a figure of moral support for the family. Elizabeth’s father tells Matt he should have been a more devoted husband and father and describes Elizabeth as ‘good and faithful’. Matt expects Brian Speer to show up but it’s wife Judy instead. Matt is shocked but Judy is now aware of the divorce. She gives Elizabeth flowers and says she forgives her even though she should hate her for destroying her happy home. Finally after Alex and Scottie say their last goodbyes to Elizabeth, Matt comes to terms with all that’s happened and all Elizabeth has done and gives her a goodbye kiss. The movie ends with a scene showing that Matt is now no longer the back-up parent.
The best quality of the movie is that it deals with a family problem very likely to happen, if not common enough already. A wife from a marriage that’s already failing is about to die. The husband finds out his wife cheated on her while she’s in a coma with only days remaining. A lot of times, Alexander Payne has focused on stories of people that were either failures or felt like failures. This is a story of a husband and father who is a success as a realtor but paid the price of his success with a failing marriage. Now with his wife dying, he has to confront the fact that she failed him as much as he failed her. He’s forced to confront the fact that he would have to be the full-time parents now that his wife will die. It’s also on the verge of what could be the biggest break of his Real Estate career and the biggest break for a family business. The impending tragedy mixed with lucrative opportunity mix well in creating a story that succeeds in telling a lot about ourselves and our own feelings. Maybe this situation could be happening to an audient who sees this movie.
It also has an important element about forgiveness. For so long Matt thought he was the bad guy and he failed Elizabeth. Then he learns that Elizabeth was the dishonest one. Confronting the sudden fact that one’s dying wife was cheating is not an easy thing to sort out. She’s dying but she was unfaithful. Matt makes a lot of surprising decisions in that factor both on the future of his family’s land and to do with Brian. It’s surprising to see the husband of the cheating wife confront the ‘other man’, tell him she’s dying and offer a chance to say goodbye. It’s also surprising to see Brian’s wife, the wife caught in the mess, confront the dying ‘other woman’ and say that she forgives her despite the pain she caused. Forgiveness is not easy. Necessary but not easy.
George Clooney again shines. This is the best effort I’ve seen him do that involved a multitude of emotions and feelings. This could be his best performance yet. Even though none of the supporting performances were at the same performance level as George, the two best supporting performances came from Shailene Woodley as the oldest daughter Alex and Judy Greer as the wife of Brian Speer. Alexander Payne did an excellent job of directing and co-writing the script with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Payne has always specialized in including the story’s region and its charms in stories of people’s failures and difficulties. About Schmidt captured the charm of the American prairies. Sideways captured the charm of California’s wine country. Now The Descendants captures the charm of Hawaii while dealing with the impending death of a cheating wife and mother. Again Payne directs it to perfection. That scene around the beginning which shows homelessness in Hawaii sure says something about a place we all call and ‘island paradise’. The script’s plot and atmosphere combine perfectly to make the story of family problems in an island paradise work. The script’s mix with dramatic and comedic elements as well as some genuinely touching moments makes a situation like this easier to watch on the big screen. The addition of Hawaiian music to the movie also added to its charm. Those lucky enough to see it will be glad they did.
The Descendants is excellently well-acted, well-directed, well-adapted drama. It features a situation that could be more common than we think and it shines. Definitely worth seeing.