"The Smug Moralism And Unattractive Class Politics Of ‘The Descendants’"
If I was in possession of a large amount of extremely valuable and beautiful beachfront Hawaiian land that I wasn’t allowed to continue owning, and if I cared about my family’s legacy and the future of my state, I would have a number of options. I could sell it. I could work with the National Parks Service to set up the first National Seashore in Hawaii. I could collaborate with the Hawaii State Parks agency to preserve the land and make it accessible to people other than my family. I could spin it off into an independent charity. I could donate it into a university. I could sell some of it and purchase a small piece of it at market price to preserve as a family compound. Matt King, the wealthy lawyer portrayed by George Clooney in Alexander Payne’s smug The Descendants, considers only that first option. It’s a movie that ultimately argues that the highest moral cause is a rich man keeping what’s his. And that’s not the only thing that I disliked about the second painfully politically-misguided (and oddly out of touch) movie George Clooney gave us in 2011.
That conviction that Matt’s only options are turning the land into money or keeping it for himself doesn’t just give us a narrator who is painfully self-absorbed. It’s of a piece with the movie’s odd tendency to treat the land deal part of the plot as if it’s hugely momentous and then to dissipate all the tension surrounding it. There’s essentially no debate about what to do with the land because the positions of the family members who don’t want to sell are never articulated: it’s just asserted that there are people out there who would prefer to hold on to the land even though the law says they can’t. The closest thing there is to an argument is about whether to sell to a local developer or one based out of another state. We know that Matt thinks some of his relatives are shiftless spendthrifts who would prefer to take a higher price from the non-local developer, but no one on the other side talks about what it means to them to support the Hawaiian economy, or what, if any, responsibilities they feel they have to their state. They’re just bodies there to indicate that there are substantial votes on each side. And ultimately, the big decision we’ve been told has to be made at this family gathering is actually seven years away from its deadline and pushed aside until King can find another solution.
The same shallow approach applies to every other discussion of Hawaii’s economics in the movie. The Descendants deserves credit for getting lots of non-white people into the camera frame, often on planes next to Matt King’s head as he jumps from island to island. But the movie focuses most directly on native Hawaiians during Matt’s opening monologue, as illustrations of troubles in the paradise that he declares “can go fuck itself.” The vacant, the indigent? These are things that Matt King has to endure, along with his wife’s coma. If what makes one Hawaiian is a fondness for comfortable clothing and a sense of noblesse oblige without the oblige, there are regional and ethnic identities I’d be more interested in spending time exploring.
Family dynamics, too. There’s a decidedly odd attitude towards substance abuse running through a number of scenes in the movie, as when Matt asserts that his wife used alcohol inappropriately to bring excitement into her life; a reference to the fact that Matt’s oldest Alex is at an expensive private school in part because of prior drug and alcohol abuse; or a scene where Matt’s younger daughter Scottie cheerfully presses Alex to admit that she is an alcoholic. While Matt spends a great deal of time trying to find and understand the man with whom his wife had an affair before the boating accident that put her in a coma, he seems singularly uninterested in trying to know her. And while he tells Alex that, mostly in good ways, she is like her mother, he never articulates what those characteristics are, or how they’ve changed in the alchemical transition from one generation to the next. The Descendants has next to nothing to say about family and how it develops the mark that it places on individuals over time.
There’s not nothing worthwhile in the movie. I never thought it would have been possible to say this, but Matthew Lillard is quite good as Brian Speer, the man Matt’s wife planned to leave him for. He’s sad, and frightened, and guilty, and there may be a career for Lillard beyond turn-of-the-century teen movies. While Clooney spends much of the movie looking like his handsome, let-down self, there’s one nice break when he actually seems to be playing a character, running madly down the road to the friends he hope will confirm the news that he’s been cuckolded.
But really, this may be the year that George Clooney stopped being able to turn himself into someone other than George Clooney in a way that convinced me. And The Descendants joined The Ides of March in a singular class for me among 2011 movies: films that thought they’d discovered a profound truth in the obvious, generating their dramas out of false problems, and ending in a place of deep self-satisfaction. Clooney is, apparently, one of the most charitable celebrities in America. His work in Sudan is unquestionably admirable and he got a case of malaria for his pains. It’s too bad some of that energy isn’t going into movies that argue actual progressive things, other than marinating in sentiments like the ideas that all politicians are unbearably corrupt, or that the rich are more put-upon than the rest of us. It may be self-knowledge to realize you don’t want to give up the precious things you’ve inherited. But that doesn’t mean you should be satisfied with what you see when you can finally look at yourself with some clarity.