Thursday, January 5, 2012

“The Descendants”: Messy, Masterful, and Pro-Life

Like a wake where all the adults are drinking and the kids are playing games in the attic that they shouldn’t be while Grandma is laid out on the table in the parlor, “The Descendants” wobbles between pathos and comedy, frequently threatening to lose control. That it doesn’t is a tribute to the anchoring presence of George Clooney, a true movie star who never does more than he needs to. “What a simple performance!” Katie said, as we left the cinema last night, in the admiring way you would praise a classic performance by Jimmy Stewart, who said the secret of film acting was to walk onto the set and tell the truth.

In “The Descendants,” there is no wake because the death hasn’t happened yet. Elizabeth, wife of Matt King (Clooney), has been brain-injured in a boating accident in Hawaii, and lies in a hospital bed hooked to life-prolonging machines. A workaholic lawyer and frequently absent “backup parent,” Matt uncertainly embraces his two misfit daughters (the remarkable Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) as Elizabeth’s coma deepens. Around this wobbly triangle gathers a small galaxy of extended family members, friends, rivals in love, multicultural passers-by, and a goofy teenage boyfriend named Sid (Nick Krause).

Elizabeth’s living will requires that no extraordinary efforts be made to prolong her life. So the last half of the movie involves many goodbyes, as everyone from Matt to his daughters to Elizabeth’s father to [surprise] and then [surprise] comes to the hospital one last time. There are many good things to say about a film that is in this year’s Best-Picture discussion, but here’s a surprising one: “The Descendants” is a pro-life movie in which the main event is a woman being taken off life support.  

Writer-director Alexander Payne serves up more lines of dialog addressed to a comatose character than in all recent movies put together, and because Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) was an imperfect woman in life, she sometimes gets an earful in near-death. And we see the point: she is still alive for her family and friends. She still matters. A couple of remarkable camera shots near the end bring home this point even after she physically dies. In one, as Clooney (no big spoiler here) throws her ashes in the sea, the camera looks at him from inside the urn. Elizabeth is still here. 

“The Descendants” is a movie about death and family that will make you squirm from time to time because it is an odd mix of comedy and tragedy, but in the end, when all is settled, you will feel that, ahhh, everything is as it should be. All is in its place. Perfect.


  1. Just a note to say how much I have enjoyed your thoughts on this new blog. Would have commented before, but for a couple of months Google has prevented it via some convoluted machinations apparently aimed at making me sign up as a blogger myself. Today, for no particular reason I could see, they fixed it. Thanks again.

  2. Thanks, JD. Others apparently have had trouble commenting, so I hope the problem has been fixed. I do appreciate your comment very much.


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