by Jef Burnham
Now available in a Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy Combo Pack from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.
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I’m not sure how Alexander Payne’s The Descendants came to be nominated for five Academy Awards. Okay, so you have George Clooney, and he at least delivers an Oscar-worthy performance to be sure. However, I found the film extremely problematic, specifically in its depiction of how death effects the wealthy, as though that’s something everyone can relate to. As such, even as Clooney delivers a powerfully emotional performance as a character coping with the death of his wife and their unresolved issues, the filmmakers opt out of depicting some of the more complicated and interesting emotions elicited by the loss of life in the modern world.
Adapted from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the film tells the story of Matt King (George Clooney), a lawyer and descendant of Hawaiian royalty, whose wife Elizabeth suffers a brain injury in a boating accident at the outset of the film, leaving her comatose. After the doctors tell him she will never regain consciousness and they must take her off life support, Matt discovers that Elizabeth had been having an affair. Matt, along with his two daughters and his daughter’s boyfriend Sid, flies off in search of Elizabeth’s lover even as her death approaches.
Ultimately, I find that the family’s wealth and social standing deprive the narrative of many of the subtleties associated with losing a loved one. The loss for the family is strictly an emotional one, it seems. And how often are the effects of a person’s death on a family strictly emotional? Simple things like the loss of part of a family’s income can significantly complicate the mourning process, especially when the family has children and they depend on a secondary income. Curiously, The Descendants still focuses on financial matters despite the removal of this factor from the table, as the Kings’ extended family looks to settle on a buyer for their $500,000,000 plot of land. Ultimately, this narrative thread has little to do with the immediate dilemma of Elizabeth’s pending death, save for a contrived link between the sale and Elizabeth’s lover.
So why include the thread about the land sale? I see two primary benefits of the land sale thread to the overall narrative: 1. to show that Matt, by the end of the film, has vaguely changed somehow to value life more highly than before, and 2. to compensate for the thin narrative that runs through the rest of the film. And yet, the film denies these potential benefits as Matt’s ultimate denial of the sale may also be interpreted as an act of petty vengeance against his wife’s lover, and the narrative outside the land sale is far more interesting— so much so that the land sale irritatingly sidetracks the King family’s struggle to cope with Elizabeth’s death and infidelity at key moments of crisis. Moreover, this only serves to distance viewers from the Kings, as the death of a loved one for most families often results in major financial crises not faced by multi-millionaires. As a result, the removal of Elizabeth from the characters’ lives seems altogether too tidy, given this writer’s experience with death at least.
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Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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