Alexander Payne returns to exploring the quirky moments that life throws at the unsuspecting. The Descendants is a comedy-drama that is difficult to laugh at because the issues at hand are so delicate and heavy, but it does not help that more conflicts arise without warning. This 2011 Indiewood film plays with mixed emotions as a male in the midst of a mid-life crisis dives deeper into newly formed crises.
After Matt King’s (George Clooney) wife is critically injured in a boating accident, leaving her in a coma, he must assemble his two daughters and extended family during this difficult time. Both daughters are rebelling in their own way; Scottie (Amara Miller) has been acting out at school and towards other children and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) has been irresponsible at her boarding school and has not spoken to her mother in months. Matt and his family descended from a long line of Hawaiian royalty and is the sole trustee of the family’s Trust. In a few years the Trust will expire and Matt is responsible for choosing which developer will be sold an untouched plot of land.
Everything seems to be caving in on Matt at one moment, although the signs of trouble were always in front of him. It is not until everything is close to the edge does he become aware of how the catalysts were right in front of him. It also takes spending more time with his daughters, who are each rebelling in their own particular way, to fully realize how asleep he had been. Life has passed him by. He is a mediocre father at best with little clue on how to raise his two daughters, let alone by himself. He ran the Trust like a business and he ignored his wife. The beginning of the film, Matt narrates that when Elizabeth wakes up and gets better that he will work harder on his relationship and his family. It is funny how we regret not taking the time to be aware of our surroundings and the people in our lives, and guilt one suffers from not having that chance.
Matt is is forced to make several tough decisions in a short period of time, testing his patience and drive. The toughest is assembling the extended family to deliver the news regarding his wife and explain the choices available to his family’s Trust and the plot of land. In the matter of weeks Matt must learn to care for his daughters where in the past he passed it off to his wife, and has the final say in his lineage’s future. The most difficult decision was already made by his wife in writing, but his questions remain unanswered.
Payne’s films are typically road movies that involve a death or absence of a loved one and the main character is continuously fucked by fate. Films such as About Schmidt and Sideways follow similar plot points and both end in a marriage. The Descendants follows a similar path and the marriage at the end is not in a literal sense but thematic. Matt’s worldview is shifted uncontrollably after meeting Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) and his wife Julie (Judy Greer). Matt has been searching for Brian with his daughters for roughly a week to deliver the news regarding Matt’s wife’s condition. When he finds him, Matt realizes that the actions of others affects families other than his own. While never particular self-fish at the beginning of the film he does gain the awareness of his life and family that he did not have before.
Matt is forced to make several tough decisions in a short period, dealing with both a death and rebirth. These themes also involve that of forgiveness, although it is not explicit in the film. These decisions and this moral growth allows Matt to make the correct decisions that affect the future of his family rather than that of the present. He turned himself outward to what was best for the legacy and not the finances of the Trust. Payne’s films do allow the main character to show their progression and metamorphosis throughout the course of the film, yet the most drastic change is always revealed in the last shot. This was true in Sideways and more apparent and satisfying in the end of The Descendants.