Sigh. The Descendants. The reviews from places like Rolling Stone and the New York Times call it a “nearly perfect” movie. While Dana Stevens over at Slate, did take on the thinness of the story, and the underwritten nature of the George Clooney character, no one that I’ve seen (in my cursory Google search) seems to be noting that this movie just reinforces the notion that what counts as a story is the trials and tribulations of the white upper classes.
I’ve written about this before — it was my chief complaint about Freedom and the critical canonization of Jonathan Franzen. There is a certain cultural object that seems specifically designed not only to reassure wealthy white people that their story is central to the culture, but to flatter them that they are the right kind of wealthy white person, and The Descendants is as perfectly-formed an example of this as anything I’ve seen in a while. (The Help did it too, with race relations more than gradations of class, but so ham-handedly that it’s hardly worth parsing.) Matt King has inherited enormous wealth, but, the voice-over is careful to explain to us that his refusal to spend his capital is a moral decision for which we should admire him. He chooses to live solely on the proceeds of his property law practice, a practice that is, by the looks of the office space, pretty lucrative. Matt’s aristocratic self-restraint renders him superior to his wife, whose attitude is characterized by greed and unnecessary risk-taking (hence the coma, and her subsequent death). Oh and she cuckolded him. (A mistake the movie emphasizes by having her cuckold George Clooney with the guy who played Scooby Doo. In case we might miss the point about how foolish she is.) Elizabeth is the wrong kind of wealthy person, one who wants expensive things, who likes shopping and spas and flashy risky sports. Matt’s cousins too, are characterized by their greed, even as the ever-present voice over informs us that most of them didn’t inherit the kind of capital that can be disdained, and that they really need the money that the land sale would generate. Matt is the sole trustee of a family land trust, and although the cousins have all voted, and have lined up a buyer with a plan for developing this admittedly gorgeous chunk of Hawaiian land, at the last minute Matt refuses to sign the papers to dissolve the trust. He gives a pretty speech about how their ancestors have entrusted him with this land, and the movie portrays this as a brave moment of standing up to his family. But the effect is to demonstrate once again that Matt, played by the always-charming George Clooney is the right kind of rich person. This allows the viewer, who has by this time come to identify with Clooney because he’s well, Clooney, to reassure themselves that they are not like all those crass rich people, they are (or would be) the sort of correct rich person who would never have sold off that gorgeous piece of property, even to help support their cousins who actually need the money.
There are many charming aspects of the movie, chief among them Clooney’s warm performance as a baffled father, and although reviews refer to the daughters as terrible brats, they seemed pretty normal to me (I know a now-12 year old who would have worn her older sister’s underwear in just that mocking manner). And I get the legacy issue — I too come from one of those families where there are a lot of photos of successful and fabulous ancestors who did astonishing things. It’s not that these are not suitable subjects for novels or movies (see Edith Wharton, Henry James) but it’s the utter lack of self-awareness that soured this movie for me. The characters are so black and white, the wife so bad, George Clooney so good, the cousins so bad, George Clooney so good, that one can’t help but get a whiff of that same sort of white-guy-self-congratulation that inflated the reviews of Jonathan Franzen’s quite good novel into the next Great American Novel. When you’ve got reviews in all the major media outlets doing the same for this movie (to say nothing of the Oscar nomination and whatever it’s garnering at the SAG and Golden Globe awards), it seems to me that we’re looking at another case of bourgeois self-congratulation. And it seems to me that everyone involved should be just a little smarter than that.