The medium of film, in being both narrative and visual, is uniquely equipped to satisfy our fascination with the unknown. That’s why people love science fiction and fantasy movies, set in the far reaches of space or worlds that bear no resemblance to our own. It’s why we have so many movies about people on the margins, priests and prostitutes both, who exist to most of us as fascinating external objects that seem to have no bearing on our own worlds. Studios and producers compete to cultivate grotesqueries because movies can convey them better than any other medium, and that means that they put people in the seats.
The Descendants, Alexander Payne’s first movie since 2004’s Sideways, is instead remarkable by how very ordinary it is. Like 2009’s Up in the Air, which also starred George Clooney, its characters live comfortable bourgeois lifestyles, work middle-class jobs, and eat lunch out of Tupperware containers; their dilemmas, their sufferings, both great and small, are the same ones that we all confront. This is a movie about ‘real life’ in the Tolstoyan sense, ‘real life with its essential concerns of health, illness, work, rest, with its concerns of thought, learning, poetry, music, love, friendship, hatred, passions.’ And it is about how those essential concerns are dignified, in their way cosmic, even as they are quotidian.
Clooney stars as Matt King, a Hawaiian real estate lawyer who is also the trustee of a twenty-five acre plot of land owned by his extended family on one of the islands. As the film opens, he and his cousins are preparing to sell off the land and dissolve the trust. His world is thrown into shock, however, when his wife suffers a traumatic boating accident, leaving her in a coma, and shortly thereafter by the discovery that she had been having an affair. He also struggles with the confounding job of raising two daughters, both of whom are in their respective ways mildly delinquent, neither of whom is equipped to deal with the prospect of their mother’s death.
The bulk of the film is taken up with Matt’s effort to find and confront the man that cuckolded him, but the journey, both for Matt and for the audience, is more an elegy than it is an adventure, an exploration of family ties and the slipping of time and of coming to terms with life’s responsibilities. Remarkably, Payne manages to realize every character’s humanity. No one is given a free pass, but no one — not even the film’s ostensible villain, the object of Matt’s wife’s adultery — is made into a cartoon, either. Sin is not excused, but, like pain, like laughter, it is universal, as it falls to Matt to come to understand.
If the movie missteps, it is in its occasional effort to expand its meditations across generations. Payne wants to ask how it is that we believe that people who lived generations ago are linked to us by more than genealogy, but the question never quite seems to matter. What matter are Matt’s relationship with his daughters, his wife’s incapacitation and adultery, the pain and difficulty of letting go. As long as those issues remain front and center — and it is most of the movie — The Descendants is a quiet, sad, funny film about real life. It is a rarity in being so honest, and in being so successful as well.