Communication, politics and popular culture.

Starting over: The Descendants doesn’t go deep, doesn’t try to

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Father and daughter stalk the coma victim's lover.

Hollywood is nothing if not prescient. Behind-the-scenes strategists have their feelers out constantly tuning in to the changing demographics and the latest trends. Or maybe they’re just reflecting life back as they see it? Whatever you choose to believe, The Descendants is evidence again that the movie industry is on to what Jane Fonda calls the “longevity revolution.”

It turns out this movie is about a wealthy lawyer (George Clooney as Matt King) whose wife is clinging to life in a coma after a boating accident. His family trust is about to sell a huge piece of oceanfront property in Hawaii that has been in the family for generations, and as trustee, Clooney’s character seems ready to join the majority and cash in on this land windfall, retire and resume his cushy life jetting to and fro across the islands. Although dressed in casual floral shirts and sandals throughout the entire film, make no mistake, he’s enrolling his daughters in private schools and generally living a caviar life. Sure, the character is depicted as a bit of a spendthrift, but come on–he’s enjoying a pretty good time in paradise and I don’t think anyone really believes that he is suffering despite his narrated confession: “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.”

Life is good, well maybe not

Life is good except for one small hiccup. His wife is in a coma and he’s just learned that she has no hope of recovery. According to her wishes left behind in a “living will,” she wanted to be “unplugged,” and allowed to die without intervention. Well, maybe there is just one other small hiccup. It turns out his wife has been in love with another man and having a torrid affair. Oh, and it seems that his oldest daughter, Alex (played exceptionally well by Shailene Woodley) knew about the affair, hence the rocky relationship between the two of them. Suddenly, Clooney’s character is a lot more interesting and the movie transforms into something else, entirely. Thank goodness, because it started out kind of boring.

The film cashes in on the demographic of the boomers who are now living almost 30 years longer than the previous generation and are pretty “buff” while doing so. I give you Exhibit A: Clooney, who at 50, looks pretty capable of starting a “second life” after his wife’s accident, whereas he may have been considering retirement and golfing with the geriatric set a generation ago. With divorce rates climbing and economic conditions deteriorating, people are looking at starting over in their 50’s, rebuilding with new relationships and second, or even third careers. Of course, I may be a bit biased here, given my personal experience, but I do think the observation is still valid. This a story that could be inspirational for a whole generation of younger boomers, in particular, and perhaps even Generation X’ers who are notoriously cynical but enjoy a bit of fantasy now and again.

Fresh: Woodley is the best

Prepared to be a little jarred by the family dynamics here. If you don’t have teenagers, you might be horrified by the way Woodley’s character interacts with her father and her younger sister (f-bombs dropping everywhere). Having a fairly straightshooting daughter of my own, I thought maybe they had modelled Alex after her and was pretty impressed by this depiction. Confronted with some harsh adult realities at a relatively tender age and left to fend for herself trying to figure it out, Alex puts on a tough veneer for the world. The beauty of this portrayal is that she manages to rage on about “twats” and bosses her father around, while still appearing vulnerable and fresh-faced. Her optimism takes the form of a boyfriend who she “adopts” into the family and who epitomizes both qualities–props to actor Nick Krause as her sweet sidekick, Sid. This woman is going places, both in the movie and as an actress. Expect to see a lot more of her in the future.

So, King is now “victim” as he unravels his wife’s web of infidelity. It turns out that not only is her lover married with two kids of his own, but he also stands to gain financially by the sale of the family property. Clooney’s performance as the devastated land baron is nuanced and deserves the accolades, but I’m not sure this is Oscar-worthy. I found the movie to be pretty glib about the infidelity, as though it was a “no-fault” occurrence. In fact, when King confronts the guy who bedded his wife (in his own bed, it turns out, as Clooney’s character interrogates him for details), he wants to know how it happened. The realtor, Brian Speer, shrugs and says it “just happened.” King responds angrily, “Nothing just happens!” and the response from Speer is, “Everything just happens.” Everyone is off-the-hook here it seems, except when Speers wife, Judy, discovers the affair and shows up at the hospital to confront the comatose woman who, as she says, “tried to steal” her husband. A very strange moment in the film, as King appears embarrassed by her devastation and tries to protect his wife, gathering up the blubbering woman and pushing her out the door.

King of glib

This is the same guy who decides to tell his oldest daughter that her mother is going to be taken off life support while Alex is doing laps in the pool.  Then, he asks a doctor at the hospital to break the news to his youngest daughter. Huh?!! He appears to be emotionally stunted and totally confused, even turning to Alex’s boyfriend for advice. When it turns out that this young man has recently lost his own father in a drinking and driving accident, King’s reaction is to stare blankly back at him, too caught up in his own problems to even reach out. I guess people are often like this in real life, but this is another reason why the ending doesn’t work for me.

At the end of this film, I felt a little hollow, when I think I was supposed to feel a more hopeful. I’m also wondering if the ending of the movie isn’t overly romanticized. The film is written and directed by Alexander Payne who also directed the wonderful “Sideways,” which is one of my favourite movies. He is quoted as saying that he believes there is an audience out there for literate, “slower, more observant, more human films.” I’d be all in favour of that, but let’s not scrimp on insight in the process. There is cause and effect here, life is not completely random.

Then there’s the final scene with King curled up on the couch with his two daughters watching a documentary on TV. It seemed to suggest that everything was going to be alright and everyone would do just fine. A fine message but let’s not turn Clooney’s character into a SNAG (Sensitive New Age Guy). He was no such thing and to end on this note was a little lame.

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Author: Jody MacPherson

Googling. Flickring. Tweeting. Blogging. Tumbling. Stumbling. Tubing. Pinning. Scooping. See www.about.me/jodymacpherson. Offering freelance citizen journalism, live-tweeting, basic photography and videography. Specialized services available for political candidates. See www.swingstrategies.ca for basic and customized packages reasonably-priced.

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