Envigorated with all we accomplished over Memorial Day weekend, my husband and I actually committed to watching a whole movie (instead of spending a movie-length space of time watching Buffy and The Office on Netflix because it’s too late to start a movie). We chose The Descendants, which came out on DVD in March of 2012.
There is nothing more frustrating than a movie that could have been good, but just plain isn't. Oh, there were some good things about it. It's beautifully shot, and, as a Reel Faith review points out, it treats both end-of-life decisions and adultery as extremely serious issues.
This movie tries so very hard, from the very first moments, to shake you out of your illusions. It warns and warns you that things are not what you think they will be: George Clooney's voiceover as Matt King spells it out for us, explaining that life in Hawaii is no paradise -- that the people there have just the same pain and suffering as people anywhere. “THIS IS GOING TO BE DIFFERENT,” the movie fairly screams.
In a typical move, a character is introduced, he is put through his ordeal, and he comes out at the end -- but wait! There’s a twist, something which tests the firmness of his transformation. And he either wins or fails, but you see what has happened to him at the end; you can see what the rest of his life will be like.
In this movie, there are nothing but twists from the very beginning: Matt King’s wife has a boating accident; it turns out that her coma is irreversible, and her living will says no life support; their family is not merely unpleasantly bratty but profoundly miserable; and finally, it turns out that the wife has been having an affair and was planning to ask for a divorce. This all happens within the first third of the movie.
Now, there is nothing wrong with turning things on their heads like that. But if you are going to frontload all the twists and turns, there had better be a really strong and satisfying psychological denouement to counterbalance the action.
Parallel to the action involving King’s family drama, there is the question of how he will handle a huge and emotionally charged land deal. Several cousins own thousands of acres of pristine tropical land, and have been planning to sell it and split the immense profits -- the only question is, sell to whom? King is the executor.
His problem is, and apparently always has been, that he’s not a true executor of anything. He’s passive, someone who lets things get worse, comfortable with letting other people make decisions. We know this because he tells us so, repeatedly.
Not only does the film tell more than show, I don’t believe what it tells me: that King somehow conquers his fatal flaw at the end. Never once does he follow through on anything, good or bad. He stifles his impulses, sometimes out of fear, sometimes out of a dubious sense of decency. Faced with crisis after crisis, does he change? Not that I can see. And if not, WHAT WAS THIS MOVIE ABOUT?
The set up suggests that his comatose wife is somehow connected with the unspoiled land: it’s just lying there, and he has to figure out what to do with it. It’s a great idea for a movie: the central character of the film, the one around whom all the action swirls, who effects every single person, and who is a silent witness to the harshest truths inside everyone’s hearts, as they spill their guts in the hospital room -- this pivotal person is silent, wordless, a blank canvas. And as she lies dying, her suffering family returns to go look at the land, to remember how they used to go to it as children in their time of need. Stunning idea! So what do they do with it?
Nothing. There is some vague speechifying about how the cousins, who own the land, all have Hawaiian blood in their veins, and so therefore it is important to keep things going. In the pivotal scene, where King says goodbye to his wife one final time, he reveals that he has grown: from his initial response of guilt over the past and vague hope for the future, to the rage of placing deserved blame at her feet, and finally to a place of peace and brutal truth, where he delivers himself of this unbelievable speech, lifted straight out of Deathbed Scenes by Hallmark:
Goodbye, Elizabeth. Goodbye, my love, my friend, my pain, my joy. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.
Yeah. So if you can imagine George Clooney saying this, doing that George Clooney thing where he acts like he’s acting, rather than just going ahead and actually acting, you will see what was so frustrating about this movie. It promises everything, and gives almost nothing in return: no risks, nothing unusual, nothing to remember or startle or inform, or even give us hope that there is anything really good to come after the final frame.
I suppose we’re supposed to come away thinking that sometimes it takes terrible tragedy and loss to bring us back to what we really need. Matt King ends up snuggled on the couch with his daughters, sharing the blanket that covered his wife when she died, jocularly passing around bowls of ice cream. And that’s supposed to be good enough for us.
I want to tell him, “Look! Your teenager is going to go right back on drugs once the novelty of being supportive wears off! Your ten-year-old is not going to be okay just because you hug more now! Just like with the land deal, you have all just kicked the can down the road, and have mistaken the reprieve of exhaustion for actually achieving something!”
Why does this movie bug me so much? I guess because it plays games with the viewer -- the very games which the characters all play with their own lives, mistaking nuance for achievement. King explains early on in the movie, “I don't want my daughters growing up entitled and spoiled. And I agree with my father - you give your children enough money to do something, but not enough to do nothing.” Somebody should have extended the same tough love to the makers of this film.