The main character of the new movie The Descendants, played by George Clooney, is Matt King, but he isn’t very regal. He has quite the pedigree —descended from Hawaiian royalty and missionary bluebloods — but in sad reality he isn’t much of a man: He’s not a lord even of his own tony bungalow. And yet, as luck would have it, he’s going to be very rich once he completes a deal to sell off the unspoiled tract of Hawaiian land his family has held on to since the 1860s. This has prompted numerous reviewers to call him a “land baron,” but he is more aptly a Trustafarian — and an accidental one at that. He must now, thanks to the law of perpetuities — nothing lasts forever, after all — wind down all the fruit of all of the familial accomplishments that have come before him.
This deal will make him and his ne’er-do-well cousins “very, very, very rich,” he tells us, in one of the film’s opening voice-overs. He already lives very well, dining at the famed Outrigger Club; we like him anyway because he eats out of Tupperware dishes and has made good (and done well) in the law practice he has founded. (Everyone in Hawaii is seemingly either a lawyer or a real-estate broker; King is a real-estate lawyer.)
But while set to make a fortune, his family suffers misfortune. On a thrill-seeking boat ride, his wife smacks her head and winds up comatose, leaving King to raise his two daughters alone. “If you’re doing this to get my attention, it’s working,” he tells his wife in one of the voice-overs. He pleads with her to wake up.
True to his modern-male self, he has no idea what “to do” with the children he has sired. His youngest, Scottie, all of ten, flips him off with enthusiasm and torments other children with naughty text messages. Alexandra, his eldest (well played by Shailene Woodley), dabbles in alcoholism at her $35,000 prep school. Though he wants to give his daughters just enough to “do something, but not so much that they do nothing,” the truth is that they have just about everything kids could want except adult supervision. His children have thus far inherited the uncouthness and pathologies that only affluence seems to be able to purchase. Now they are being forced to grow up. The Kings are like Hawaii itself, “all part of the same whole,” but “separate and alone and drifting apart.” At one point, he even asks his daughter’s stoner friend for advice on what to do.
King confesses that he is “the back-up parent, the understudy,” forced by events to take center stage. He must now break the news to family and friends that his wife, in a persistent vegetative state, with a living will, won’t wake up; and he must wake himself up to the responsibilities of fatherhood and to the reality that his wife had been carrying on an affair.
Language, especially among families, often fails. And so, his children oscillate from rage — more than a few F-words are said — to despondence. King begs his children to behave and be civil; they ignore him because, as he notes, his children have trouble respecting authority. Everyone is one another’s bro, everyone tells one another to chill. The man driving the boat that severely injures King’s wife is altogether pathetic as he tries, in vain, to say something profound from his surfer’s vernacular. Not everything is groovy. King wants to know who his wife has been “seeing,” not bringing himself to use the dirty language others use with abandon. He pleads with Mark and Kai Mitchell — his wife’s friends — to tell him the man’s name. Kai refuses, having “egged” on her now-comatose friend; “this is a unique and dramatic situation,” Mark says, in the understatement of the movie. Mark gives King the name — but only because he’d want to know in King’s situation, not because it is the right thing to do.
King himself is often unsure what to say. He yells at his brain-dead wife for her betrayal — only to upbraid, and even spank, his daughter Alexandra for doing the very same thing in his presence. Both are denied the satisfaction of a response and both conspire to keep the truth from Scottie, the official reason being that a ten-year-old can’t really deal with the enormity of the loss, but the more likely reason probably being that they just don’t know what to say to her.