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Maurice Timothy ReidyJanuary 30, 2012

The director Alexander Payne is known for black comedies featuring dazed and confused male protagonists. Think of Matthew Broderick in “Election” or Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church in “Sideways.” Yet he deserves equal recognition for his sensitive adaptations of novels. The Descendants, based on a book of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings, is Payne’s fourth film adaptation, and a sign that his reading list is growing in interesting directions.

Hemmings is not a well-known author, and perhaps that is to Payne’s advantage. There are no rabid fans to dissect the differences between film and text. Still, adaptation is a difficult art, and Payne has managed to find books that work nicely on screen, with little of the portentous voiceovers that tends to spoil films about books. In The Descendants, Payne, a graduate of the Jesuit high school Creighton Prep in Omaha, has found source material that builds upon his oeuvre without replicating it. He brings us another middle-aged man at loose ends, but one whom seems more grown up than his predecessors.

George Clooney has already generated significant Oscar talk for his lead role, but the whole cast is superb, with Robert Forster, Beau Bridges and Judy Greer deserving special mention. It is unfortunate that the Academy does not recognize the acting of an ensemble cast. Clooney and company prove that great performances do not emerge from a vacuum.

“The Descendants” is imbued with more pathos than a typical Payne film. Clooney plays Matt King, the paterfamilias of a family at a crossroads. His wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), lies in a coma after a crashing in a boat race. For the first time in a long time, he must learn how to be a father to his two daughters. He must also contend with an irascible father-in-law (Forster), who holds him partially responsible for Elizabeth’s accident, and friends who press him for updates on his wife’s condition. Oh, and he belatedly discovers that Elizabeth was having an affair at the time of the crash.

In another Payne film, such a confluence of events might send the male protagonist into a frenzy of frustration. Yet King is oddly subdued. When he first hears about his wife’s affair from his daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), he does not yell or scream, but sprints out the door to the house of two close friends. His heated interrogation of the couple (what did they know and when?) is a rare outburst. Mostly, Matt holds it together.

Over the course of the film, Matt approaches a kind of maturity that has long eluded him. He declines to dispute his father-in-law’s claim that Elizabeth was a “devout wife,” graciously allowing him to hold onto this piece of fiction as he watches his daughter slowly fade away. When Alexandra’s spacey friend, Sid (Nick Krause), laughs at her grandmother’s dementia, King does not respond with anger. It is left to his father-in-law to (literally) punch him in the nose. Matt understands that, even at 17, Sid is just a kid. To some, Matt may simply seem afraid of confrontation, but his exercise of restraint ultimately comes across as sensible, even wise.

It is tempting to attribute Matt’s laid-back attitude to his place of residence: the islands of Hawaii. Yet as he explains at the start of the film, the residents of Hawaii do not live in a utopian paradise. Cool trade winds and gorgeous beaches do not exempt one from the normal disappointments and tragedies of life. Matt, a less than happy lawyer whose relationship with Elizabeth was fraying long before her affair, knows this better than most.

Even though the story is told from the point of view of a “howlie,” the film’s portrayal of Hawaiian life feels convincing. (It certainly does a better job than “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” which rarely left the Hawaiian resort.) There are the little details: Clooney’s slightly shaggy mane; executives wearing Aloha shirts instead of suits; a reference to Punahou School. What the film does best, though, is impart the importance of family in the Hawaiian tradition. From Matt’s fractured nuclear family, to his large networks of cousins, aunts and uncles, to Elizabeth’s friends and well-wishers, the characters in “The Descendants” are rarely alone. They may fight in ugly and profane ways, but they never abandon one another, especially in difficult times.

The family circles extend beyond the living to the dead. Matt is the executor of large estate on the island of Kauai that he and his cousins inherited from their royal ancestors. Added to the tragedies he faces is the question of what to do with the land, a gorgeous parcel of virgin territory that some cousins hope to sell to a developer. When the family meets to vote on the question, they gather in a house filled with pictures of their dead relatives. For them the past is still very much alive. In his few short scenes, Beau Bridges, playing Matt’s cousin Hugh, cleverly conveys the unseen bonds that keep this unusual family together.

Elizabeth also serves as a ghostly presence in the film. She hovers on the edge of life and death, serving as a silent interlocutor for Matt and the rest of the King family. As Elizabeth’s condition worsens, each are allowed a moment alone with her. Even Judy Greer, who plays the wife of the man with whom Elizabeth had an affair, feels the need to talk to her. “I forgive you,” she says, again and again, louder and louder until Matt intervenes. What is it about a comatose patient that concentrates the mind? Like Pedro Almodovar (“Talk to Her,”) Payne is intrigued by the questions raised and the emotions stirred by a woman on the verge of death.

The title “The Descendants” can refer to several groups of people: Matt’s two daughters, left motherless by circumstance; Matt and his cousins, mulling the fate of their ancestral land; the people of Hawaii, entrusted with a precious but fragile resource. The film does not, however, hint at another meaning of descendants: the children of Abraham. Though “The Descendants” is a poetic meditation on the meaning of land and family, it has little overt to say about faith or the afterlife. Even when the Kings face the grim reality of death, God is never mentioned. The omission of religion is to be expected from a Hollywood film, but coming from the Jesuit-educated Payne, we might have hoped for something more.

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Beth Cioffoletti
12 years 1 month ago

This is a good review, but I don't understand why the fact that God is not explicitly mentioned would bear on how little it says about faith.  Faith itself is about not knowing, why muck it up with words?

12 years 1 month ago

Hollywood misses a bet because it ignores religion. In the real world, religion always enters in, either by its absence or by its various usages. 

Steve Miles
12 years 1 month ago
The “descendants” can also refer to the children of Adam. The voiceovers in the film’s opening and closing scenes lead me to believe that Payne does intend to call the viewer’s attention to that meaning of the term. In that light, I read the film as an exploration, of a kind, of human life after the fall. It is, to be sure, a secular exploration (perhaps a secular parable?), but I wonder if faulting it for not mentioning God is somewhat beside the point. As I read the film, Payne appears to be reversing the old idea in Christian theology that we steal Egyptian gold (i.e., the wisdom of the pagans) and use it to render Christian wisdom more intelligible. Payne, it seems to me, has stolen biblical gold and used it effectively to render secular humanism more intelligent. That entails bringing it to the realization that, yes, we’re fallen, that we’re all in this together, and that only something like a love that has the capacity to withstand rejection and pain stands a chance of getting us out of this mess. And, while God is not mentioned, the film does reject a lot of false gods along the way, leaving the viewer to wonder about the real source of our salvation. That’s not bad for a Hollywood film.
Fr.Douglas Brougher
12 years 1 month ago

Excellent points, thanks to you all. I noticed the absence of God talk most acutely in the burial scene, if you want to call it that. (I don't want to give away too much here for those who have not scene the film.) To be clear, I am not calling on Payne to make a Christian film, but the choice not to mention anything about faith or the afterlife at this crucial moment did seem deliberate, and not true to most people's experiences. Even in you're not a believer, the subject of God or the afterlife is something people tend to talk about when they face death. That said, I do admire the film for-as Steve says-rejecting a lot of false gods.

Denise Mathes
12 years 1 month ago
Alexander Payne was true to the spirit of the Hawaiian culture specifically Aloha Aina (love of the land) and Aloha Ohana (love of family). If anything, I think it could be said that the Matt King LIVED the gospel (more often than not) without speaking the words.
12 years ago
I think that this film is incarnational, reconciliative, and redemptive in the deepest theological senses of those terms. God is present throughout, like a gentle breeze on the cheek, guiding Matt King as he stumbles his way toward relationship with his daughters, his wife, his ancestors, and himself.
12 years ago

"Even when the Kings face the grim realityof death,  God is never mentioned."  True enough, but after seeing the film I am convinced that God is present all over this movie.  God can be very subtle.  For me the Ignatian principle of "seeing God in all things and all things in God" was very much present in scene after scene.  Alexander Payne has done great work here.  George Clooney and the entire ensemble of actors were outstanding!

If this film doesn't get several academy awards, I will quit the Academy.  Of course, I don't belong to the Academy, but if I did, I would quit.

Donald J. Carlos, Lakewood CA

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