To say that someone has been unfaithful is now to imply a breach only of sexual fidelity, but there are other sorts of faith-keeping less well-recognized by our sensationalistic age. The Descendants, a new movie by Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways), explores the link between fidelity in marriage, which everyone understands and has strong views about, and fidelity between the generations, which is a much less fashionable subject and one that most people, perhaps, would rather not think or talk about. Matt King (George Clooney) is the scion of an old Hawaiian family, a lawyer and the sole living trustee of a family trust which has to be wound up in seven years on account of the common law rule against perpetuities. With the dissolution of the trust, a plot of prime Hawaiian real estate must be sold which could bring the remaining family members as much as half a billion dollars to divide between them. They all look to Matt as the one with the sole authority to arrange the sale, though some have mixed feelings, at least, about disposing of a patrimony deriving from the family’s royal Hawaiian heritage.
To assuage everyone’s conscience, Matt proposes selling not to the highest bidder, a Chicago development firm, but a local consortium. The deal is put on hold, however, as Matt is suffering through a family crisis after his wife, Liz (Patricia Hastie), suffers a head injury in a boating accident and lies in hospital in a coma. Matt, normally preoccupied with work, is grief-stricken and determined to be a better husband and father to his two daughters when Liz wakes up. But just as he learns from the doctor that she’s not going to wake up, his rebellious teenage daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), tells him that Liz had been cheating on him before the accident. Unable to confront her about it, he confronts others instead, ultimately including his wife’s (married) lover (Matthew Lillard), who turns out to be one of those standing to benefit if the local consortium buys the family land. But the focus remains on Matt both as the comic cuckold and as the touchingly grief-stricken husband, since he hardly knows how to act in either role.
As in all his previous films, Mr. Payne gets a superb performance not only out of his leading man but also out of his other actors. As he was in About Schmidt, especially, he is interested here in what remains of the value of emotional continence in the era of letting it all hang out, and Matt’s eventual stoicism and — the word is rather shockingly appropriate — courtesy in the face of emotional devastation contrasts interestingly with the laid-back Hawaiian lifestyle which is everywhere in the ambience, including a soundtrack dominated by Hawaiian music throughout. The movie begins with a voiceover from Matt that starts as a paean to the Hawaiian paradise, and then an angry denunciation of same: “Paradise can go f*** itself,” he says. The idea that this juxtaposition suggests to me is one by no means exclusive to Hawaii: that paradise must be life’s default position and that, therefore, any of the ordinary troubles of human existence which may come along to disturb it come as such a shock as to undermine the entire foundation of one’s world — at least until one learns, as Matt must learn, the virtue of acceptance.
Naturally, acceptance doesn’t come easily when one is surrounded by people who continue to have one’s own high expectations of life, but once it does it can be a lesson to others — both, that is, to Matt’s daughters (the pre-pubescent one is played by Amara Miller) and to the greedy cousins between whom and their prospective millions Matt threatens to interpose a roadblock. I think there is something slightly facile about the different ways in which St. Matt is shown keeping the faith when those around him hardly understand the concept anymore. Without their cultural underpinnings, his virtues may appear merely quixotic. But Mr. Payne, who has adapted Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel with the help of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, likes to blunt this critical response by sticking in surprising moments of a feeling and understanding answering Matt’s own from the most unlikely people. These include the tearaway Alexandra, her apparently air-headed slacker of a platonic boyfriend, Sid (Nick Krause), Matt’s wife’s boyfriend’s wife (Judy Greer) and even his superannuated hippie cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges).
Henry James wrote of Anthony Trollope that “He must have had a great taste for the moral question; he evidently believed that this is the basis of the interest of fiction.” The same could be said for the films of Alexander Payne, even though he is not always so reliable a guide as Trollope to the point at which morality ends and sentimentality begins. Like Matt himself in beautiful Hawaii, Mr. Payne is surrounded in Hollywood — he tries to spend a lot of his time at an apartment he owns in his native Omaha — by people who wouldn’t know “the moral question” if they were swimming (as, of course, they are swimming) in a sea of it. Also like Matt, his occasional mistakes are forgivable for the sake of his uncommon moral honesty and sincerity. The overwhelming impression of this film, as of his others, About Schmidt especially, is one of a wisdom and humanity that will outlive the corrupt milieu in which they have so unaccountably flourished.