I always wanted to go to Hawaii but somehow never managed to do so. Until today. While the truth is that I didn’t actually board a plane, cross the skies above the USA, and then fly about halfway across the Pacific Ocean; instead I went to see the new George Clooney film called The Descendants which is set in Hawaii.
Just to set the record straight, this wasn’t the Hawaii that you see in the travel videos, or the brochures, or the travel magazines. Well it was – but not the way you expect. You see The Descendants isn’t about vacationing in Paradise. It is about living in Paradise, or as Clooney’s character Matt King says at the end of his introductory voice-over in the film:
“Paradise? Paradise can go fuck itself.“
Clooney’s Matt King is a practicing attorney in Ohau – where there are traffic jams on the highway, crime, cloudy days with torrential rains, and life with all of its issues, problems, and confounding situations with all the warts showing – just like we have everywhere here in mainland USA.
Matt King has been dealt some rather difficult issues – his wife has just been horrifically injured in a boating accident and lies comatose in the hospital, he has to care for his two daughters, aged 10 and 17, and he hasn’t a clue on how to go about that, and finally he is the sole trustee for a trust that owns 25.000 prime acres in Kauai, and his family wants to sell it. He’s still on the fence about that.
A son of the King family, many generations back, married a woman that you might call the descendant of Hawaiian royalty, namely King Kamehameha. She was something like a grand niece. Long story – short version, The King family through a trust, now owns the rights to this huge parcel of undeveloped and pristine land that is worth millions.
After the boating accident, King’s youngest daughter Scotti (Amara Miller) begins acting out in school. Clearly she’s lost and hasn’t any way to know how to deal with grief. Her father decides to go and get the eldest daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), out of the expensive private boarding school where she is, so she might help out home with Scotti. Only Alexandra is going through her own issues which including drinking, partying, and recently, she had a huge fight with her mother.
So when all are finally under the same roof, and Matt sits down Alexandra and lays it out for her that’s going to have to grow up, set aside her differences with Mom, and help get Scotti back on track – where upon Alexandra drops the bombshell on Matt.
“You don’t have a clue do you? Mom was cheating on you. That’s what we were fighting about.“
You sit in the audience and you watch the emotions make their way across Clooney’s face. Anger, disbelief, frustration, anger, desperation – he’s shocked speechless and there are no easy answers. This is atop the already known problems of Mom’s coma, the fact the he hasn’t really any first-hand experience at parenting – in his words, I’m the back-up parent, the understudy – and the decision that must be made about the land.
So, we hitch up our wagons to Matt and we’re going to spend the rest of the film with him as he seeks his answers. He’s going to have make a journey towards beginning the rest of his life with these huge obstacles that have suddenly landed not only before him, but also on him, as well as inside of him.
Well George Clooney is more than up to the task. This is a Clooney we’ve not seen before. He’s not going to be able to wisecrack, or draw a weapon, or outsmart someone. He won’t have a gang, or an arsenal behind him. As Matt King, these are his problems and his alone. He’s going to have to play every-man, in short, be one of us.
I didn’t expect that my first visit to Hawaii would produce tears. But it did. Yet this film cannot be just pigeon-holed as a tear jerker. It is much more than that. No one is going to label this film as all gloom and doom. In fact, we won’t cry until we see young Scotti begin to tear up after her Mom has passed. But what adds to the enjoyment of the film is that you’ll find moments to laugh, and you’ll find moments when indecision and mistakes occur by the characters that you are rooting so hard for, yet you feel their naturalness in the cinematic flow. Nothing seems forced or staged or thrown in because it might be time for a crisis, or a joke, or another crisis.
But short of tears we do experience the high and lows of family life. Our heart goes out to Matt King as we know that his struggles have been played out in homes maybe less grand than the one they live in, or in homes more grand – they’re the quintessentials of life – no matter where or how you live. All of us will go through these same things.
That’s the beauty of this film. Directed by Alexander Payne and written by Payne and Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the film manages to bring you into a situation of sadness that will only get worse as the film proceeds. Yet Payne and Clooney – as well as the supporting roles of the kids and other family members – watch for Robert Forster (below) as King’s father-in-law – bring us to a place where there is light at the end of the tunnel. Not a happy ending in the usual sense – but that King and his kids, have to move on, and the decisions have to be made, and for those of us who watch the fim – we have to move on as well. You leave the theater not with an exalted feeling of closure, or even wow, we got through it.
Instead you feel grateful for having had the opportunity to peer into the home of a successful attorney, whose wife cheated on him. Into a family where the Mother has just suffered calamitous injury, and to a place where you had a chance to see how the children of this family had to struggle to cope. But they and you will emerge. Life goes on.
Yes, all is not well in paradise. Then again, it never was.