The Descendants

A movie for every day of the year – a good one



21 August

Hawaii becomes 50th US state, 1959

Today marks the day when, in 1959, Hawaii became a part of the United States. It came about as a result of revolution which unseated the local Republican party, which had been in power in an almost unbroken run since the country had become a constitutional monarchy in 1887 (though that didn’t last long – it was shortly after annexed by the US in 1898 and became a Territory).

The Republicans had close ties to a number of companies known as the Big Five, originally sugar plantation owners and processors, whose oligarchic power allowed them to set high prices and make huge profits from the islanders.

The Big Five had imported labour to work the plantations, most of whom were denied citizenship and lived in camps. Their children, however, could become citizens, and became increasingly vocal as, at the same time, unionisation of the plantation workers started to lead to strikes in favour of higher wages and lower prices, political freedom and full rights.

In the 1954 elections this groundswell, and a Democrat party which had organised itself effectively, finally won a majority at the elections. The Democrats immediately set about changing the tax system, introduced a health insurance scheme, environmental protection and workers’ rights. President Eisenhower responded by appointing a Republican governor to veto many of the reforms, so the Democrats went all out for statehood. Which, after a 93% vote in favour on the islands, and against concerns that to admit Hawaii was to admit communists and the possibility of a dark-skinned senator, was granted in 1959.



The Descendants (2011, dir: Alexander Payne)

The Descendants is an unusual sort of comedy. A brain dead wife, a cuckolded husband – it’s not really a comedy at all. It’s built around George Clooney, reassuring us in voiceover as Matt King that he’s a good rich guy, rather than a bad rich guy – “you give your children enough to do something but not enough to do nothing” – having already laid out the mess of his life (adding estranged kids to the comatose, unfaithful wife). Clooney/King we’ve met, having been told that the estranged wife has had a boat accident and is now in hospital in a persistent vegetative state. His job is to pull the kids out of boarding school, bring them home, to say goodbye to their mother, and then…?

The film is part written and entirely directed by Alexander Payne and like his Sideways it’s a road comedy. Again like Sideways it’s gentle, but this time it’s ever so gentle; there’s no Thomas Haden Church to firecracker away. Instead there’s Clooney doing his dependable velvet thing, lots of lovely shots of picture-postcard Hawaii as Matt drives the kids from one encounter to the next, a soundtrack of either finger-picked guitar or a baritone singing Hawaiian songs.

They’re an odd contrast, this sun-kissed wave-lapping scenery and a brain-dead wife/mother plus familial bickering by Matt’s two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) who resent Matt’s valiant lone parent act. The throughline is a quietly stated double Maguffin – should the wife’s life support be switched off, in accordance with her wishes? And should the King family sell a valuable piece of real estate on the island? Selling will make a whole heap of cash, but it will end a tradition – this was the plot that first bound the family’s and Hawaii’s destiny together.

On the way to Matt’s do-or-die moment Payne entertains us with characters. He’s good at this. The daughters, Shailene Woodley full of teenage sarcasm, Nick Krause as he dudeish Sid, the spaced out boyfriend of Alex (Woodley) who isn’t as dumb as he’s making out. Matthew Lillard turns up, the lizard grin of yore bulked out with middle age, as the guy who’s been seeing Matt’s wife, possibly, Matt learns, while he was still trying to make a go of the marriage. Robert Forster is the wife’s father, angry and confused. Beau Bridges a member of the wider King family pressuring Matt to sell, reminding us how good Bridges is at affable malevolence.

In the end it’s a journey, around a beautiful territory, in the company of some interesting people, who meet other interesting people on the way. It’s almost possible to just take it all in as a travelogue with a bit more family business than you usually get. Remove the sotto voce Maguffin – the land deal, the insensate woman – and that is pretty much what it is. But with it in, and Clooney’s calm, almost hypnotic voice, Payne makes it a drama about the slow, almost tectonic emergence of a new land mass – Matt’s humanity, dignity, nobility.



Why Watch?

  • Another smart Alexander Payne comedy
  • George Clooney’s anchoring performance
  • The emergence of Shailene Woodley
  • The cinematography of Phedon Papamichael



The Descendants – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014


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