Many things happen in George Clooney’s new independent feature, The Descendants. Set in Hawaii, you might be tempted to think that the movie plays as a moving postcard, a love letter to that most serene and other-worldly of these United States.
That isn’t the case if director Alexander Payne has anything to say about it. He drops his main character, Matt King (George Clooney), into an earthly paradise like Kauai and then proceeds to paint a hellish picture of his circumstances: his wife (Patricia Hastie) is in a coma, his money-worshipping cousins are pressuring him to make a tidy profit on the family property – a gorgeous lot of Hawaiian land – he has been charged to sell, his daughter holds a permanent grudge against her nearly deceased mother, and (to boot) his comatose wife, it turns out, had an affair throughout their marriage.
Kind of a lot for a middle-aged man to handle. And yet.
And yet, Matt seems to relish the hurdles that are thrown in his way, if for no other reason than it grounds him to an earthly reality where he can glorify the shortcomings of his existence and even bask in his glaring, enormous personal flaws. Somehow, that helps him make sense of the often times terrible and disturbing circumstances he finds himself submerged in. The fact that he can accept his circumstances as well as he does, coupled with the fact that he has a unique cadre of relatives and friends to both guide him and lead him astray, makes it easier for Matt to accept the fact that nearly every decision he has made has been the wrong one. It is, after all, a terrible thing to be human. Is there any other form of life that so embodies poor judgment and delayed enlightenment as does our species?
The movie plays exceptionally well, and for my money there isn’t a better one playing in theaters right now. Clooney has never been better, delivering a finely etched performance that rings as true as any in recent memory. Like all Clooney characters, Matt is a bit of a cad, but a vulnerable soul who (like the rest of humanity) is simply trying to survive and make sense of ‘it all’, even when ‘it all’ feels like a nihilistic void of nothingness. The rest of the cast is equally sublime, notably Judy Greer, who plays the other ‘other woman’ in the bizarre twist that consumes Matt’s marital trauma.
Many films released around this time of year portend the miraculous, and aim to satiate our desire for comfort and the familiar with cozy pictures of family togetherness and hearth-side warmth and fuzziness. The Descendants, in spite of the fact that it depicts family life as being almost unbearable – or, perhaps, precisely because of it – ends up painting much the same picture. It’s kind of like the celluloid equivalent of a Joni Mitchell song: highly individualized and specific, yet somehow (dare I say inevitably?) universal.