The Descendants

Ok. Maybe it’s just me.

I thoroughly disliked this movie. I deplored every one of the main characters and could not, would not, did not want to follow them through their trials and tribulations.

For one thing, and let’s get this out of the way first and fast, it is yet another movie/play/book sniffling “poor me, I’m rich and white and beautiful.” Yes, yes, I know his wife is dying after having cheated on him and yes I know his children are termagants and yes, yes, he is the thoroughly winsome and engaging George Clooney. And yes, even rich white people have troubles and even rich white people are entitled to sympathy.

Or are they?

Because you see here is my real problem with the movie. These people aren’t entitled to sympathy because they have none of their own.

Almost no one in this movie was able for a moment to look past their own issues, problems, and circumstances to discern or detect or even acknowledge those of anyone around them.

And that goes for parents with regard to their children, even their adult children; and for lovers and spouses; and for siblings; and for friends.

There is a myopic me-first bone selfishness to, particularly, the central character. He does have a lot on his plate, and a certain amount of numb, dumb self-absorption is understandable. But buck up, you know? You have children you have to be responsible for and to—regardless of whether you were the “backup” parent or not. Others’ needs and feelings come first. Yes, I know he swallowed an obvious retort rather than taking the bait proffered by his obnoxious and even more monstrously selfish and unempathetic father-in-law (vividly portrayed by the terrific Robert Forster) and allowed the hateful old man to believe in the devotion and fidelity of his daughter, but the glaring point thus underscored to me was how these horrible people all took their grief as an excuse to be meaner and more ornery and nasty than usual to their kinfolk. Instead of mourning taking them to an elevated place, it elevated their pettiest emotions. We are supposed to feel differently because we then spy Forster kissing his comatose daughter. I felt that an obvious manipulation.

We spend an awful lot of the movie chasing after the wife’s lover for an eventual confrontation. It gave an excuse for a road trip for the family and everyone in general seemed in pretty good shape on the holiday. With Mom out of sight and everyone on the path of this windmill at which to tilt, the day-to-day mundanity of coping could be fast-tracked. And Dad and the older daughter could conspire and bond as he—totally inappropriately—made this seventeen-year-old privy to adultery and vengeance: problems that were HIS issues with the mother, while not examining or even perceiving the nuances of her own, which were far more complex and, given her youth, far-reaching. Meanwhile, when it comes time to tell the younger daughter of the imminent demise of her mother, Dad heroically has a specialist stranger on the hospital staff explain the situation to the kid.

And those surrounding Matt (our hero) are no better. You really can’t expect much from the kids; they are, after all, just kids and don’t (and probably won’t) know any better. But Matt’s friends, associates, and relatives barely do more than provide the briefest nod to his situation. Certainly there is no one who seems to care or understand.

Really, too, does he have no peer, no confidante, no work associate?

I kept thinking someone wiser, older, more seasoned, more mature, would step up to the plate and demonstrate or explain about how we sometimes have to put someone else first. And no, forgiving his wife or holding onto the pristine ancestral estate in some sort of misguided effort to join the circle of life doesn’t cut it. He has nothing to say, nothing to offer, when his daughter’s goofy friend Sid reveals that his dad just died a few months ago. He hastily shuts down the emotional outpouring of the lover’s betrayed wife, making her more than a little ridiculous. He isn’t there for either daughter on any meaningful level except to draw them into his drama. Because for his generation (mine, I guess), it’s always all about ME.

I have read a few reviews of the movie and critical opinion seems to favor it. And I’ve read some “real people” over at imdb, and while they quibble over a variety of items and premises, no one ever seems to remark or even notice what killed the movie for me: its eternal, infernal self-centeredness.

I think, unfortunately, that that is because no one DOES notice this. As a society, we are so damned wrapped up in ourselves and our emotions and our needs and our problems to the exclusion of ever extending a gracious hand or performing an unselfish gesture.

Many years ago, we saw Titanic, the musical, and an early scene in it has always stayed with me—because it was so of the historical period it portrayed (gone, gone, gone, all vestige of gracious living). The owner of the Titanic wanted to toast the maiden voyage while standing on the ship’s bridge with the captain. The captain sternly noted that he did not allow alcohol on “his” bridge. The owner testily responded that, technically it was his bridge. At which point, the valet, who had been standing silently till then, demurred, saying “Sir, I cannot allow you to drink this champagne. It has gone flat.” I marveled at that, at that valet’s tact and discretion, at his ability—and his willingness—to save everyone’s face while risking their potential ire.

People don’t do that anymore.

And that’s why I so disliked this movie.

Oh, I should note before closing that I found one performance to be particularly brilliant. Beau Bridges in a tiny role (he has maybe three little scenes) is unforgettable. His way of fumfering around a line in a vague, totally naturalistic manner, conveying nothing in that annoying way people can when we are trying to get something useful, or coherent, out of them—it wasn’t that he was stupid or slow, just that’s the way his character talked. It was very real and very funny.

But still not enough reason to see this picture, I fear.


~ by Nita Congress on November 30, 2011.

One Response to “The Descendants”

  1. Thanks Nita. Very eloquent. I walked out of this movie thinking “i know i’m supposed to but i don’t think i really liked this movie.” It was all based on a tragic situation and i didn’t think any of the characters had an honest or “real” reaction to it. You’re right. It was all about “them.”

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