The Descendants is the most critically acclaimed film in the theatres right now. I’m not sure I know quite why. Well, one reason is the excellent track record of its director, Alexander Payne. His About Schmidt and Sideways are genuine classics.
The Descendants follows in their footsteps insofar as that film too is about an emotionally stunted man who goes on a kind of misbegotten but still personally revealing road trip and gets somewhat less self-absorbed and more open to a genuine relationship with a woman. For Schmidt, that woman is his dead wife, from whom he had been alienated or isolated for years, and the same is true for Clooney character in The Descendants. So we see, of course, that those relationships are sadly incomplete because they’re so one-sided. In Sideways, the screwed-up guy might have a real future with a living woman.
The Paul Giamatti and Jack Nicholson characters in the earlier movies are full of quirks that (especially in the Giamatti case, of course) suggest painful cluelessness, and they are neither handsome nor charming. They live on the lonely margin of society. They have very little going for them, and it’s easy to know why they’re sad sacks.
The Clooney character, by contrast, is rich, well connected, strikingly handsome and in perfect shape, eloquent and charming, has two beautiful and smart daughters, and, with the exception of his wife being on life support and later dead, seems to have everything going for him. It’s a lot less clear what’s wrong with him. Whatever it is was there well before his wife’s fatal accident.
Clooney, the actor, lacks the nuance or range of the great Giamatti and Nicholson. His character, in fact, is most reminiscent of the guy he plays in Up in the Air. Both characters are somewhat sophisticated and hyper-presentable, successful, and very short on deep, relational feeling. And both films seem to suffer from the failure to let the viewer in on the cause of the character’s flat-souled detachment or displacement in the midst of prosperity.
It might be, in the case of The Descendants, that the point is that we’re wrong to look for a social or relational cause. Some people just have a kind of “heart disease” by nature. If that is the film’s point, then it might be a little better than most of the critics who praise it think.
The film opens with the Clooney character (Matt King) complaining that Hawaii only seems to be paradise because people are screwed up there too. Because people are born to trouble everywhere, there’s trouble in paradise too. The Hawaii we see is, in fact, as close to paradise as there is in this world. The weather’s always perfect, the natural beauty is quite incredible, and people seem to have plenty of everything with little work. At first, the point seems to be that paradise isn’t all it’s cracked up to be because even or especially there people are still stuck with love—or the lack thereof—and death.
But Matt’s negative judgment is conditioned, in large part, by the fact that he’s particularly screwed up. He’s stingy or the opposite of generous.
He’s the descendant of Hawaiian royalty and missionaries, and his family inherited lots of land and money. Many of his feckless relatives spit away their fortunes, and their lives are somewhat dissolute. But they also seem to be more about family and friends, and they enjoy life in paradise for what it is, which ain’t everything.
The Clooney character says he and his family live only on his income as a lawyer; he leaves his inheritance alone. He says he wants to give his children enough, but not too much.
The truth is Matt doesn’t give his family much at all, much less than he easily could. He admits he’s only the “back-up” parent; his wife has raised the daughters. He is so neglectful of her that he’s unaware she’s hopelessly in love with another man. He resolves to become a real husband only after the accident that puts her in a coma. We have reason to doubt that he would have followed through if had she really gotten better.
It seems he’s thrown himself into his work, but it’s not like his work as a real-estate lawyer seems so absorbing. He’s stingy with his money, his time, and his affections, and so he doesn’t really know or take responsibility for his wife, his daughters, his extended family, or his wife’s friends.
Matt is a descendant of the founders of Hawaii. But he doesn’t look Hawaiian, can’t speak the language, and doesn’t hang out with the indigenous people (or even his extended family). He’s inherited the means to live like an aristocrat, but without taking responsibility for who is as an Hawaiian. He is, on behalf of his extended family, the trustee for 25,000 prime acres that they apparently will have to sell or probably soon lose. The decision of a large majority of the family members is to sell at a comparatively modest but still huge price to Hawaiian developers, developers they know and think they can trust.
Matt, apparently as an act of a more expansive Hawaiian responsibility, decides to override to the vote of the family and continue to keep the land undeveloped. If we look carefully, we can see that this decision comes from a curiously isolated, unaffectionate guy. His relatives really need the money, and Hawaiians could use the jobs. The family may lose the land anyway. And we also notice an element of revenge—the guy his wife had the affair with will be out big commissions.
Matt's decision is an apparently noble or selfless but also passive-aggressive move that may tear his extended family—the descendants—apart with nasty litigation. Surely a man’s responsibility is first of all to his family, to those he really knows and loves. It's doesn't really seem that he chooses, as an aristocrat properly understood, for the Hawaiian people.
Matt does “grow” some on his road trip with his daughters to confront the man his wife loved. He does show his love for his girls; the back-up parent steps up to the plate in a crisis. His rather unjustified anger toward his wife is replaced by loving understanding.
The film ends with the girls and dad very passively and silently watching TV and eating ice cream. It’s a family moment, to be sure, but they’re all alone and not getting on with their lives. We don’t have much evidence that Matt’s heart has been enlarged all that much; there are definite natural limits to his capacity for knowing and loving other persons.
If that’s the film message, then its intention as a movie about a dispossessed or displaced aristocrat has a kind of psychological subtlety that puts it up there with About Schmidt and Sideways, even if the characters and the performances aren’t as good. Aristotle says stinginess is incurable, and there's a lot of truth in that exaggeration.
UPDATE: So this was supposed to be a provocative post. Kristian Canler did a fine job of presenting the evidence for Matt's greater personal growth and genuine aristocratic responsibility. I'm going to use my formidable power to move his words from the thread to the text:
I'm thinking Matt King's decision to try to protect the land rather than ruin it with retirement programs (and you can't deny that's what all the plans had in common) was really about responsibility not only for Hawaii, but for his daughters. The last scene where the land was mentioned, I think, was where Scotty (his youngest daughter) was sad because she didn't get an opportunity to camp on the land like Matt and her older sister did. At that point Matt didn't really say anything, but that seemed to be one emotional component of his decision to not sell the land for development. But in that future-sightedness I also say responsibility for Hawaii in general. He said that most of the other families had blown their fortunes and that their kids were all in private school. So his relatives don't really need the money.
And it seemed to me that most of the Hawaiians we see, represented by the indigenous woman near the beginning of the movie that Matt brought Scotty to (apologizing to her daughter), were actually more in the preserving Hawaiian land and culture camp than in the we really need jobs camp.Plus right before he made the decision we see him looking at a wall of pictures of his forebears. I don't know what that means other than aristocratic reflection.So deciding to not develop the land was a small move away from anti-generosity and emotional seclusion in his law practice and a step toward aristocratic responsibility to both his country and his family. We see this also in how he learns to be a father to Scotty. The process isn't really totally on its way by the end of the movie, but that's one of the marks of good writing (the time period of the film only seemed to be a couple weeks). But he moves from asking his older daughter to help, to asking a dumb guyfriend for advice, to talking to his wife directly and beginning to clamp down on his daughters. The future isn't clear, but that's the direction he's going in.
This is believable because it seems like he's giving up a little on the law practice to figure out how to protect the land within the next seven years. So not only are we looking at a guy who is dealing with "heart disease" by nature, which makes it better than the critics think, we're dealing with a guy who is accepting aristocratic responsibility to the extent he can in a very personal way, which is the only way a man with a democratic heart can accept that responsibility. This means it might be better than Peter Lawler thinks, too. Even if the performances aren't incredible.
It seems to me that the politically correct critics have embraced the movie because they think that something like this interpretation is pretty much the whole truth. And Kristian might be right that Matt improves more than I think. But if that interpretation is all there is, the movie makes redemption too easy and edifying in a conventionally liberal way to be particularly compelling. Fortunately for its artistic quality, there’s evidence pointing in various directions.
We don’t actually see Matt becoming a man of the people—refusing any longer to use private schools or belong to exclusive clubs. What we do see is an increasing distance between him and the Hawaiians—such as his cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges)—that he actually knows. Of all the descendants, Matt seems to be the most isolationist and secessionist, the most preppy or yuppie. He’s the one sending his daughter to a 35K a year boarding school for reasons that don’t seem nearly good enough. His criticism of his relatives most of all seems to be a criticism of himself. And maybe it’s a bit stingy, if you think about it.
Hugh is Hawaiian enough to hang out in a cool Hawaiian bar with genuine Hawaiian music. Matt goes there looking for him, and the kids love the place. But Matt has no interest in the food or the music or shooting the breeze over a whiskey sour with Hugh. He obviously doesn’t like Hugh much and isn’t growing to like him.
Matt’s controversial decision also guarantees he’s going to be practicing more law than ever. It’s going to be hard, maybe impossible, to keep the trust from being dissolved. And his relatives are probably going to be suing his guts out, and not without reason.
Hugh is a pretty good guy; he, unlike Matt, is close to many of his relatives, and he would rather that litigation not decimate what family ties there are. But he’s certainly right that Matt doesn’t seem to have the family’s interest at heart.
Matt does seem to think of himself as being a genuine trustee of what he’s inherited, a genuine aristocrat in one sense. But his decision is arguably the very opposite of personal and sort of stingy. There are Hawaiians who approve of it, but not the ones he knows well. His general approach to what he’s inherited is not to use it to do anyone in particular any good. (That his daughter might camp there may have moved him, but that consideration could hardly determine the outcome of a 25,000 acre, half-billion dollar deal involving the future of lots of people.)
It’s true enough that Matt's relatives don’t need the money exactly. They are extravagantly wasteful, the opposite of stingy. Their souls are disordered in the opposite direction from Matt’s, and they are equally if differently irresponsible. But they could certainly use the money, and they’re only about selling the land, after all, as a reasonable response to the legal challenge of the dissolution of the trust. The couple of hold-outs were regarded as just not facing up to the facts on the ground.
We can say, for certain, that by alienating himself from his extended family Matt is pretty much stuck in the narrow circle of his immediate family, his girls. That’s how the movie ends.
The movie shows us that paradise ain’t so good for the soul. We see in Matt’s family two kinds of excesses—stinginess and extravagance. Maybe Matt is moving toward the mean between the two extremes, but the evidence is mixed at best.
We do know the land deal as conceived by the family as a whole is a mean between two extremes—between selling to strangers and not selling at all.