Dictator of Sadness
by ALEX CARNEVALE
dir. Alexander Payne
Matt King (George Clooney) is a real estate lawyer whose unfaithful wife was recently put in a coma during a suspicous boating accident. His two daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) react in different ways: the older Alexandra begins growing up, and the younger Scottie begins acting out. Neither response is acceptable to Matt King; to him, both reactions lack considerable subtlety.
King is the sort of person you read about but rarely encounter outside of an audit — the man who derives pleasure from absolutely nothing in his life. During The Descendants, he never reads a book or watches television, he never swims or boats in his native Hawai'i, he never eats, sleeps or has an orgasm, he never has a kind or reassuring word for anybody, let alone his two daughters. Even though the mother of his children is on her deathbed, he does not once embrace either of them willingly. When it comes time to tell Scottie her mother will not awaken from the coma, he has a social worker do it.
"Hawai'i," Clooney opines in the tragically overbearing voiceover that begins The Descendants, "is not the paradise you think." The fact that writer-director Payne feels the need to explain this parallels the way Matt King interacts with the world. No one ever tells him how things really are, he is always the one complaining that other people are not thinking and behaving the way he would like. "It's like they don't respect authority," he whines.
In the film's most awkward scene, the wife (Judy Greer) of his wife's lover (Matthew Lillard) suddenly shows up at the hospital to express her anger at the comatose woman who ruined her marriage and possibly her life. "I want to forgive her," Greer tells the incapacitated adulterer, although she obviously does not. Her righteous anger builds. The moment she starts to offer her true feelings towards Matt King's dying wife, he immediately ushers her out of the hospital room, telling the distraught Greer that it's time to go. He cannot mourn in the presence of another's grief, he alone is the guardian of feelings.
Although Matt King openly admits he did not treat his wife well during their life together, the soon-to-be widower must be the center of attention. Instead of quietly telling all his friends when he learns his wife will die, he throws a big party where he can properly express gratitude for their concern for him, almost forgetting to mention they should visit his wife before she goes. When he finds out his wife cheated on him with a real estate agent named Brian Speer, he's not so much mad she cheated as angry that he had to find out from his older daughter. It is the one time Clooney's character breaks his cool. During the rest of The Descendants, the only thing that truly seems to upset Matt King is the way his children speak.
"Where'd you learn talk like that?" he is constantly snapping at young Scottie. A self-described "back-up parent", he spends most of the movie force-feeding her ice cream and other high calorie foods. When she puts sand in her swimsuit to induce the appearance of large breasts, he finds fault in that as well. He takes special exception to whenever one of his daughters uses a euphemism for vagina. It seems he would rather they not have the organ. "Switch them out for sons," someone advises him.
Shailene Woodley's Alexandra King is the real star of The Descendants. The story is actually about her, but perhaps Payne didn't realize that until afterwards. We are singularly drawn into the events of the film when Alexandra King pushes forward the action or gives Matt King the motivation to so. Each time George Clooney's craggy face looms on screen, dressed in a shirt Alexander Payne presumably loaned him off his back, we can only think of how unbelievably courageous George Clooney is for not dyeing his hair in an industry that considers old age close enough to death to be the real thing.
When Alexandra takes over the frame, we lose the feeling that we are watching an actor playing a role, and the events of The Descendants seem not only possible, but inevitable. To console herself in the face of her grief, Alexandra invites along her friend Sid (Nick Krause) during the family's last days with their dying mother. Matt King objects to her daughter's choice of sleeping bag/stress ball/stoner, until young Sid movingly reveals that his mother is a receptionist for a veterinarian and his father was killed driving drunk the previous fall. Even though Matt King called the boy stupid a moment earlier, he does not apologize after hearing this confession, even though the young man, at the age of 17, has endured more than he has ever known. Grief is truly possible only in isolation.
In dramatic terms, the tragic accident, the sudden onset of sadness from unexpected death, is the cheapest way to wrench the audience. To its credit, The Descendants plays on this as little as possible. The death of their mother and wife feels like a tremendous relief by the end of the movie; it has brought the family closer together when they were completely stretched apart, and a not-very-good wife and mother has been eliminated (cremated) in the process.
Alexander Payne has a gift for making us pity the kind of people who don't deserve it, and detest those who do. I'm not sure why Payne had to throw Matt King's wife so completely under the bus; perhaps he was tired of the glorification that comes with an early passing, maybe he thought it would give the actions that surround "this tragic accident" a different cast. It does. Without this moral confusion, The Descendants would be nothing more than an overly long, not very exciting eulogy, and no one likes to sit through one of those. Such complications certainly make Payne's feature somewhat more intriguing than a Lifetime movie-of-the-week. Since the film itself only occurs over less than a fortnight, the departure of its stained and unkempt corpse comes not a moment too soon.
The subplot of The Descendants concerns a parcel of land on the island of Kauaʻi. Matt King is the trustee for the unimproved land bordering on water; it has been preserved by his family over generations. Because of various laws his family can no longer hold onto the valuable swath of beachfront. Because his wife's lover would profit from selling the property to a developer, he decides not to sell. He cares nothing for the benefits his cousins and extended family derive from such a sale; he thinks only of how he is feeling, what he desires. Amazingly, this represents a sea change for Matt King. We may want to tell others what to do, Payne is saying, but we have no right to speak for them, only for ourselves.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here. He last wrote in these pages about Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol.
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