The Descendants, based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, is adapted by writer-director Alexander Payne but without his usual morbidity and nihilism. But in losing these qualities, there are many ways in which this film feels conventional, like the Hawaiian-inspired soundtrack reminding us of the paradise that the source material may be trying to subvert.
There’s the acting, especially from George Clooney, playing the protagonist, a Hawaiian-born and bred man named Matt King, over-narrating the story’s sociopolitical ‘undertones,’ but more on that later. In one of his voice-overs, he asks his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), in a coma after a boating accident, to ‘wake up,’ even if his deadpan delivery of those words inadvertently suggests that it doesn’t matter to him either way. The acting has strong points, especially when each character is reacting towards news that Elizabeth won’t recover and has to be take off life support. When Matt hears the news from a doctor, the former surprises us with glazed puppy dog eyes. Then his older, vulnerable, seventeen year old daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) submerges her head in a leaf-littered backyard swimming pool. Then it’s someone else’s turn, Matt taking on the duties of breaking the news to her family and friends. I’m fully aware that my indifference towards these characters in a time of need makes me seem like I have a heart of stone but the fault is how the movie presents it. The repetition makes me focus on the ritualized state of mourning as opposed to the emotions within the said ritual. Either Payne or the source material doesn’t have a handle on how an event like this affects the story’s many characters, and not enough variation with the who and the how.
These road trips and rituals allow Matt to be around people who think differently on what Elizabeth, a woman with many friends, means to them. But at the same time, it’s as if these people carry the burden of Elizabeth’s loss without any of that emotion transferring to him. A stranger case is Alex’ boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), who stays within Matt’s posse because Alex demands that she’ll be more civil throughout the ordeal. Despite of what Sid says to aggravate Matt, the former stays a few days longer to conveniently redeem himself, telling Matt his approach to take life in stride despite its difficulties and defends the old man against an older man, Elizabeth’s father (Robert Forster). It’s as if Matt’s self-described ‘back-up parent’ disposition is an excuse to keep characters unnecessarily close to him.
Elizabeth’s accident also comes within bad timing, as Matt and his cousins, friendly with each other on the outside, decide on whether and whom to sell 25,000 acres of untouched property inherited from their ancestor, King Kamehameha. This part of the story interests me more, especially with how Matt distances himself from the decision, despite being the land’s trustee. One cousin thinks the transaction is ‘sharing the land with the world.’ Matt also talks condescendingly about the need to sell because of the poorer cousins, personified by Cousin Hugh, who is played by Beau Bridges, using a cheaper version of his brother Jeff’s ‘acting intoxicated’ playbook. He and his ‘pro-sell’ cousins treat this situation smugly because his generation can get rid of a land that seems useless to them. The only dissenting voices against the sale are some cousins who aren’t given lines – those cousins are from experience, the kind who will make a bigger fuss than the placid movie allows them – and Matt’s younger daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) who, when hearing an anecdote from Alex about camping in the property, tells her ‘I want to camp too!’ The movie’s ending awaits for his decision that isn’t really accounted for by his reactions to the voices around him. In both family matters, Matt doesn’t seem to learn anything or change, not because of an outright refusal but because the writing doesn’t give him an option to do so.
The are instances when the movie isn’t lukewarm, the first of which involves the supporting characters talking to Elizabeth. They’re having sincere conversations with someone who can’t talk back. She’s shown in close-ups, her face wan with liver spots, her mouth wide open, the image unavoidably disconcerting yet honest. Everyone says goodbye, including a nice stranger named Julie Speer (Judy Greer). Matt’s farewell is the most poetic yet surprisingly least sincere out of all of them. The other kinds of scenes show a more realistic, Islander’s perspective of Hawaii and its roads, skyscrapers and overpopulation. A last scene shows the family on a small boat, supposedly on a Arcadian ritual until the camera switches to Matt – even from afar they can’t escape the islands’ skyscrapers. Nature is lost and so is the family’s mother, but only if these images were captured by a director and a movie that cared more about them.