When it comes to movies, or any art form really, everyone's going to have their own opinion. But the view some critics have expressed about Alexander Payne's The Descendants--namely that it's cynical--doesn't make sense to me. If a cynic is someone who, according to Merriam-Webster, is "contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives" and cynicism an attitude "based on or reflecting a belief that human conduct is motivated primarily by self-interest," then The Descendants is one of the least cynical movies I've seen this year. For, it seems to me, that what Payne is expressing isn't a distrustfulness driven by contempt but a longing to understand what lies behind our flaws and frailties.
George Clooney plays Matt King, a successful lawyer and "back-up parent" living in Hawaii. His motto is "give your kids enough so that they can do something, but not enough so that they can do nothing." He's spent too much of his life working, though, and now, with his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), in a coma following a boating accident, he seems to be reaping what he's unintentionally sowed.
For one thing, there are his daughters--the 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and the 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller)--both of whom are a handful in their own way. For another, there's the discovery that Elizabeth, who will soon be taken off life support, had been seeing another man before her accident and was on the verge of asking Matt for a divorce. And if that weren't enough, he's under pressure from his cousins to sell a large chunk of beachfront property his family has owned generations so it can be developed into a golf course.
So, with all that's going on, what's a man to do?
In this case, the answer seems to be: go find the man your wife was sleeping with and give him a chance to say goodbye. Which is why The Descendants strikes me as a deeply humanist, rather than deeply cynical, work of art. It even reminds me at times of the work of Frederick Buechner, one of our best religious humanists.
In Buechner's excellent novel, Godric, the narrator at one point remarks, "What's friendship, when all's done, but the giving and taking of wounds." Payne echoes this sentiment in an emotional scene near the end of The Descendants when Matt gently kisses Elizabeth's damp forehead and whispers, "Goodbye my love, my friend, my joy, my pain." And in a similar scene, one character shouts at another, "I forgive you because I have to!"
In fact, forgiveness in The Descendants is almost an inevitability, and therefore something of a mystery, since bitterness is the easier and more obvious reaction to pain. It's also just as central to Buechner's work and, of course, to the gospel itself. Payne may be addressing it from a secular perspective, but then my question is: is there really such a thing as secular and religious forgiveness, or does all forgiveness come from God?
I'm no theologian, but my own feeling is that no such distinction exists. Forgiveness comes from that part of ourselves made in God's image. Not a "sacred" part of ourselves, per se, but a part that reflects that sacredness, making all acts of forgiveness a religious act.
All this being the case, cynicism isn't a word I would use to describe The Descendants, although it would be fair to say, as one moviegoer did, that it's "a little bit gloomy." What shines through for me, though, isn't one particular emotion, but a range of emotions we'll all experience in our lifetime--anger, grief, anxiety, confusion, but also happiness, joy, and laughter. Clooney conveys each with a performance that is one part Movie Star and two parts Everyman. We never forget it's Clooney we're watching, but neither is this the brash Clooney of other films--Clooney's own The Ides of March, for example. Matt King is a man who could exist in the real world, even if he is more handsome than most of us.
My one complaint about The Descendants is that it felt visually flat. Payne peppers the film with shots of the Hawaiian landscape--it's beaches and streets and hotels--but it all looks like a weathered postcard you found at the bottom of your mailbox. He's not able to truly capture Hawaii as a living, breathing place; it's merely a pretty thing that exists somewhere far away, where the view outside the window may be greener and bluer, but it's the day-to-day struggles of the people that's the true beauty.