The Strange Ascendance of The Descendants

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You’ll like the Descendants if you are 50 years old and think that by virtue of achieving such a high score in orbiting the sun, you’re entitled to burden the rest of society with the cliched wisdom you’ve accumulated from decades of daytime TV and self help books.  For the rest of us, it’s the two hour version of those insipid moral lessons dropped into every 80’s sitcom seven minutes before the end credits rolled. This was not my most favorite movie of 2011.

Why don't you just stop.

The Descendants is a film aimed squarely at the Baby Boomers.  All of the critical acclaim you are hearing about the film comes from Boomer’s who see it through that generation’s cataracts eyes.  If you thought Fatal Attraction was a shocking thriller that hit close to home, then you will think The Descendants is a poignant drama about the joys and pains of marriage.

The Descendants holds absolutely no surprises for anyone under 40.  I’d warn you about spoilers, but the only way to spoil this movie is to make you watch it. The death of the mother, her adultery, tear-jerker ending, all of it is predictable.  To be fair there are some interesting technical points about the film, especially the way in which the sets were dressed.  Every house in the film is littered with the artifacts of countless boomer dalliances: musical instruments that no one plays, sports equipment no one uses, arts and crafts that are left unfinished.  I suppose some of it could remark on the unfinished lives that everyone leaves behind when they die too soon, but the sets, coupled with the way the characters dress for comfort rather than style, and the way every house looks almost inside-out suggests a lifestyle in which every wish is satisfied but is never enough.  Unfortunately, this didn’t resonate at all in the story or dialogue which seemed determined to make the completely trite point that marriage has it’s ups and down. And if I’m watching the set design of a movie the first time I see it, it’s because the film abandoned plot, character, and theme like an 18th century plague ship.

The Descendants basically depicts the same family as the one in the 80’s sitcom Family Ties, but without the smart-alec son that got all the laughs.  Unfortunately, that only resonates with the audience that watched that show as adults with their kids, but not who watched it as kids.

The younger and more male the character, the more they are represented as a stereotype.  The teenage daughter’s boyfriend is a less funny Spiccoli or Bill and Ted, but without the irony or charm. The teenage daughter is both petulant but paradoxically more thoughtful than her father. The chubby young daughter is the potty mouthed precocious kid who does exactly the same things as Tina Yothers on Family Ties or Leonardo Di Caprio on Growing Pains. Except she says “fuck.” Edgy. 

And as is the case with most Baby Boomer dramas, strong feelings substitute for dramatic complexity.

The film fails because it doesn’t want to connect the dots.  It doesn’t want to argue that the clutter of the houses and the dalliances and the casual existence of everyone in the movie are themselves directly connected to her affairs and his emotional unavailability.  Baby boomers are the kind of people who enter therapy wanting to cure one specific anxiety without touching the dozens of others that are apparent to anyone on first glance.  They get a little of that with this movie.  Matt (Clooney’s character) comes to understand why his wife did what she did because he wasn’t present, even though the film excuses her for her wrongdoing by suggesting that the man she slept with had ulterior financial motives for doing so (i.e. he tricked her). And he comes to realize that selling the “acres of paradise” would sever his children from their native Hawaiian ancestors, an ancestry of which he and his wife now a part, and which he feels an obligation to protect.

Like I said, it’s Family Ties + 25 years:

But on this latter plot point, the film does not make the argument that would be obvious to a younger viewer of the film: that by refusing to sell the land, Matt is stranding this valuable asset in the hands of precisely those people who need it the least. The Baby Boomers in their lifelong quest for an identity other than “white American,” have confused preserving cultural heritage with stasis. The Boomers see the present, a bizarre hash of consumerism sprinkled with feints to social justice, as their busted utopian future, so to assuage their guilt they want real spaces where they can climb into an imagined idyllic past. For Matt, it’s land his family owns but apparently never visits. Gen X and the Millennial see no bright future ahead imagining instead a host of bleak ones. So they are content to run forward, blindly and directionless. The distinction is that former former dig in their heels clinging to anything while the latter run blind, gladly abandoning everything.

But the merit in the latter approach is illustrated by the end of The Descendants. At the end, Matt and his daughters are plopped in front of the couch eating ice cream and watching TV, ready for life’s next episode. Nothing has changed really. The cast is one character smaller, but the plots won’t change.

And in the end that is what I think is driving the buzz for this film.  It’s a feel-good tear jerker that doesn’t burden the audience with introspection or culpability.  It made the audience feel something, but not too strongly.  When things get bad, just race around impulsively and pointlessly a bit, but don’t worry, they’ll be back to normal.  That key demo was due for a cry.

What makes all of the talk around The Descendants frustrating is that there is a much better film about exactly the same subject as this one–the catastrophic emotional damage left in the wake of the untimely death of a wife an mother.

That film is Hesher:

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5 Responses to The Strange Ascendance of The Descendants

  1. JohnJ says:

    The odd thing to me is that they spent millions of dollars to make this movie. Before saying that it failed, I have to question whether I understand what it was trying to do.

  2. Tim says:

    To the people that provided the money for the film, it’s a mechanism for making more money. It needs to create word of mouth, good reviews, and satisfy an expectation created by advertising.
    The Wikipedia says the movie made about $28M so far, and some site guessed it cost $35M to make, so I guess it’s 20% short of breaking even so far, but let’s wait for it to leave the theaters before calling that one.

    As far as I know, feature films don’t make a huge amount of money from advertising, in the same way network TV series do. Those shows really scare me. The producers are on a mission to attract N people from X demographic. They read the ratings, and it looks like too many women are watching the show, it’ll get pulled or there will be wrestlers in it next week. That has to create some kind of cultural feedback loop – TV tells us how to be, so if TV is designed to attract an audience, and also creates it, that must be how isolated subcultures are made… young men and women who don’t understand one another?

  3. Guy Fox says:

    Good analysis, and Hesher is a really interesting counterpoint (though I haven’t seen Clooney’s latest masterpiece, so the judgement is just based on reviews).

    The Freudian story often makes sense in terms of families, but it gets tenuous when applied to entire generations. A generation is just too freakin’ big for the idea that everyone in it thinks the same way to be very plausible. ‘Class’ and ‘nation’ induce similar doubts. Even if the idea is just that the modal Baby-Boomer thinks a particular way, you need a huge explanatory lever to explain how so many tens of millions of people wound up with the same inadequacies. Sure, vapidity and self-absorption are pernicious characteristics, but are they problems you can apply to a cohort at a time, or does it depend more on, say, particular aspects of upper/upper-middle class, white American culture that different people internalize to different degrees (and what are those aspects, and how did they/do they get internalized by whom when)? Even if the depiction is accurate, letting it boil down to a range of birthdates is kinda like saying ‘Africans are poor': not exactly wrong, but not saying much.

  4. heysherri says:

    I just watched Hesher and thought it was a variation of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, if your dream girl was an asshole.

    • camonz says:

      Hersher’s character is a spin on the ‘magical negro’ trope. For the sake of the story his only goal is to guide and give the protagonist perspective on his problems.