Matt King doesn’t have time for his emotions. He’s in the middle of a real estate deal that could result in signing over to developers of a large plot of virgin Hawaiin land entrusted to King’s family by their ancestors. Even when taking care of a schoolyard quarrel between his daughter and a classmate, he is reminded that everyone is anticipating his decision. On top of that, he’s clumsily caring for his two daughters and trying to figure out the logistics of his wife’s impending death. The responsibility of being the public face of both a well-known ancestral lineage on large, public scale as well as on a personal level with friends and family takes precedence over his own feelings.The characters are at odds with the messy details of human emotions that arise in dealing with infidelity along with frustration and guilt about their anger towards a wife and mother who is in a completely vulnerable state. They believe the critical condition should transcend the importance of any quarrels they have with her and all acts of good conduct are forced in the face of death. From apologies and forgiveness to saying goodbye, nobody can leave their anger behind.
The story itself is commonplace enough to be relatable but the cinematically comedic elements create an intentional uneasiness. Matt King has his short explosive bursts of anger that Payne tries to play for laughs only to have the scene devolve into an uncomfortable mess of hurt feelings and inescapable responsibilities. The comedic moments are byproducts of characters in crisis driven by their flaring emotions. It’s difficult for an audience to feel comfortable laughing at George Clooney’s misfortune when he appears to be genuinely pained. He needs to hide his wife’s infidelity from her father, invite her lover to say his goodbyes, and figure out how to tell his young daughter her mother isn’t waking up.
For George Clooney as Matt King, inexplicably running a mile to his friend’s house in sandals won’t garner an Oscar nomination, but having a private moment with his dying wife just might. The emotionally charged scene without any bystander’s face for the camera to retreat to is disarmingly honest but almost seems untrue to the disconnected character Clooney has created in Matt King. Even when he gets angry, he’s still restrained. Matters of life and death are difficult to navigate for those helplessly standing by and The Descendents struggled in its attempt to make that journey entertaining.
Perhaps due to Alexander Payne tackling the screenplay alone without his usual writing partner, Jim Taylor, many of the scenes that would benefit from some heartfelt, or even comedic dialogue are drowned out with the ever present, arguably grating, Hawaiian music. You can’t quite catch all the details of meeting his wife as Matt recounts them on a stroll down the beach. Still, some of those moments may just have ended up on the cutting room floor. In an interview, Clooney described shooting a personally emotional scene, notably absent from the film, where he explained to his youngest daughter, played by Amara Miller, that her mom, eyes and all, was now ashes they were going to scatter in the ocean. Payne doesn’t wipe these elements from the narrative, but he drains them of their tenderness as far as the dialogue is concerned. Those were filmed for the dramedy a studio wanted and tried to piece together in a misleading trailer. Instead of that scene, the ceremony plays out almost wordlessly with King saying something to the effect of “I guess that’s it” when they’re done.
Ceremonies are supposed to be the moments when everything else stops and you recognize what’s happening, but you don’t get to choose when that recognition really occurs. For Matt King, one of those moments can be while eating ice cream on the couch with his daughters listening to Morgan Freeman talk about penguins or when he finally has a minute alone next to his comatose wife. The ceremony is the social construct that marks the occasion and celebration of life but is infinitesimal compared to the intensely private, personal experiences.
Payne’s use of cinematic tropes like voice over and superimposed maps of the family’s journey unnecessarily hit you over the head with the themes of how duty and responsibility tie into ancestry and family. At its best, quietest moments, The Descendants is able to capture the universal discomfort of all that is inherited by a member of any family.