“My friends on the mainland think just because I live in Hawaii I live in paradise… Are they insane? Do they think we’re immune to life?”
So says Matt King (George Clooney) in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. We get this feeling right at the beginning of the film when his wife, Elizabeth, a middle aged woman having the time of her life suddenly fades away into comatose. Into “paradise.”
Gone is the suave, handsome, witty Clooney we are accustomed to. Clooney has been able to completely disappear into the character of Matt King, a man who wonders, “What is it with the women in my life that make them want to destroy themselves?” His wife Elizabeth is a daredevil. The entire reason she is in comatose is because of a speed boat accident. She’s having an affair with another man, a man that she is in love with (but he is not). His eldest daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) is a drug addict who’s interested in older boys. She’s blatantly disrespectful yet at the same time, she loves her father (I think). The other woman who is on the verge of destroying herself is his youngest daughter Scottie. She’s ten years old and is just going through that odd developing stage that all girls go through. She’s sending hurtful texts to friends. Sending things like not being another girl’s partner on the rock climbing wall because she doesn’t want to fall into her enormous butt crack (that doesn’t even make sense). Why do they want to destroy themselves?
In addition to all of this, Matt has to deal with his down on their luck cousins who want to sell the land that they inherited. But why does this matter? Because he’s the soul trustee! Why the hell are they saying he’s living in paradise for?
Although this film is set in Hawaii, and the state plays as much of a role as Clooney does, it is not about people living in Hawaii. Hawaii is simply a backdrop for a drama (technically a comedy) about a father trying to reconfigure his broken family. Even if that means coming to the conclusion that his wife loved another man more than him. But does that mean he has to stop loving her? When Matt finds out that his wife’s coma is permanent, he decides to let her lover know so that he may say goodbye to her. He does this because he needs to be at peace, with the land and his daughters, and the coming of their grief, this is just simply taking something off of his plate lunch (people will get it). It’s the story of trying to find a sense of normalcy.
There’s a moment at the end of the film that wrapped it all up in a bow that makes The Descendants one of the decade’s best tragicomedies. Matt, alone with his dying wife finds his own moment to say goodbye. “Goodbye, Elizabeth. Goodbye, my love, my friend, my pain, my joy. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.” Cheesy, I know, but it would only be cheesy if the film were directed by a different person. Alexander Payne who made such films as Sideways, Nebraska, and About Schmidt puts his own brand of “tragedy plus comedy equals art” in all of his films, and The Descendants is no exception. In that moment, when Matt says goodbye, Payne was able to sum up the entire marriage of the characters. Always putting care into something that will never give back in return. “Paradise?” Matt continues on in the beginning of the film, “Paradise can go fuck itself.”