Some people confuse living in Hawaii with living in paradise. But according to real estate lawyer Matt King, that's a mistake.
"Are they insane?" he asks in The Descendants' opening scene. "Do they think we're immune to life?"
His family certainly isn't.
For 23 days, Matt's thrill-seeking wife, Liz, has lain unconscious in a Honolulu hospital in the wake of a speedboat accident. And her workaholic husband is waking up to the reality that he's been a less-than-perfect partner. "If you're doing this to get my attention, it's working," he tells his comatose bride. "I'll change. I'll be a real husband," he vows. "Please, Liz, just wake up."
Matt's parenting skills have plenty of room for improvement too. "I'm the backup parent," he confesses. "The understudy." Talking about his 10-year-old, Scottie (who's begun bullying a classmate via nasty text messages), Matt wonders, "What kind of chance will she have with just me?"
Then there's his older daughter, Alexandra. When Matt and Scottie make an impromptu trip to the Big Island to collect Alex from her expensive boarding school, we see exactly why he's so worried about Scottie's future: He's afraid she'll follow in Alex's self-destructive footsteps, a path that's painfully obvious when the teen hails Dad and lil' sis with a drunken, f-bomb-riddled rant.
Speaking of bombs, two more soon fall. First, Liz's doctor tells Matt that his wife won't ever wake up, that they'll soon need to say goodbye and pull the plug (as stipulated in Liz's living will). Then Alex drops the bunker buster: Mom was having an affair.
Grief piles upon grief as Matt tries to make sense of his shattered life … a life that gets even more complicated when his daughter recognizes the face of her mom's lover on a real estate sign. What follows is a lurching tale of restoration and redemption as this shattered man and his two damaged daughters take a second stab at getting things right—even as they still get a few wrong.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
The Descendants is a poignant (while at times profane) cautionary tale about the damage done by self-absorption. Matt's is of the typical male variety: He's a hard-charging professional whose commitment to his calling has eclipsed his dedication to his family. The result? One fully rebellious daughter, another on the path, and a wife who seeks out dangerous thrills and an adulterous relationship. But as Matt's tragedies pile up, he awakens to the painful consequences of his priorities.
In addition to showing the sacred value of marriage, the cost of infidelity and the importance of being there as a father, The Descendents also realistically represents different stages of grief. One painful scene finds Matt venting his anger toward his wife as she lies (uncomprehendingly) in her hospital bed. Interestingly, when Alex launches into a similar tirade, Matt forbids her to speak so harshly—a telling moment since he's just done the same thing. That inconsistency reveals Matt's flawed nature: He wants the right to be honest about his feelings, but he struggles to grant the same privilege to his daughter. But by film's end he comes to peace with his wife, kissing her gently and saying, "Goodbye Elizabeth, goodbye my love, goodbye my friend. My pain. My joy. Goodbye." It's a moving moment of dignity and forgiveness.
Matt takes the high road when it comes to Liz's father. The older man repeatedly sings the praises of Liz's faithfulness and attentiveness to Matt and their marriage, and harshly reproaches his son-in-law for being a workaholic. Matt resists the urge to set the record straight and tell her father that she, in fact, wasn't nearly as faithful as he believes.
Similar restraint is demonstrated when Matt and Alex meet Liz's lover, Brian Speer, who is on vacation with his wife and two children. Matt confronts Brian, but he's careful to do so in a way that doesn't vindictively drag the man's wife into the mess and muck. Brian, for his part, makes no attempt to justify his adultery, repeatedly saying that the affair was a mistake and a terrible choice.
When the wife, Julie, figures out what's going on anyway, she shows up at Liz's bedside with flowers. The result is yet another painful-but-powerful scene as Julie, crying, confides in the insensible Liz. "I'm angry, but I'm just so sorry. I just want to tell you I forgive you … for trying to destroy my family." Indeed, throughout the film it's made increasingly clear that Liz's choices have resulted in tremendous damage—to Matt, to Alex, to Julie—and that each of those who've been wounded must work through their justifiable anger to get to a place of forgiveness and healing.
A significant subplot involves the fact that Matt is the executor of his family's sizeable Kauai estate—a 25,000 acre vista that's about to be sold to the highest bidder for perhaps as much as half-a-billion dollars. Given his family's travails, however, suddenly even that big of a payday seems insignificant to Matt. It's his wife's impending death and the welfare of his struggling girls that he's come to care most about.
Another tangent involves Sid, a young friend of Alex's who becomes her close companion. Sid seems to be a stereotypically shallow surfer dude, and he frequently plucks at Matt's nerves. In one awkward-but-tender scene, though, Matt learns that Sid's father was killed in a drunk-driving accident. The revelation helps us understand why Alex has been so drawn to him, and causes Matt to treat him more like a human being instead of merely an unwanted annoyance.
We hear that some of Matt's ancestors were missionaries to Hawaii. The man who was piloting the boat when Liz suffered her injury tells Matt and Scottie, "I've been praying for her every day—really hard." On a TV in one scene, Dog the Bounty Hunter is playing. We hear Dog say, "Seems every time I forget to pray, we don't catch a guy for three days."
Several scenes picture Alex in a skimpy bikini. In one, she's lying chest down on the beach with her suit's ties undone. Other women wearing bikinis can be seen on various beaches. A sundress boasts a plunging neckline. Twice, prepubescent Scottie tries to act more grown up by pretending to be more developed than she is. The first time, Alex reprimands her sister for trying on her bra and underwear. The second time, Scottie stuffs her bikini top with sand. Elsewhere, the mother of one of Scottie's classmates confronts Matt regarding demeaning text messages Scottie has been sending her daughter about her body's early development.
Liz's father wonders out loud whether his grown son is gay. Matt tells Alex and Sid to "stop touching each other" (though, admittedly, she's tending to his black eye, not doing anything sexual). Sid retorts with a line about Liz cheating on Matt because he had something against touching. A story is told about Liz streaking. Matt spontaneously kisses Julie Speer on the mouth for no obvious reason after confronting Brian.
Matt, Alex and Scottie are in a hotel room watching TV when Scottie starts to click on the "adult" pay-per-view offerings. Alex scolds her. Scottie says that one of her friends' fathers watches porn, and that her friend even invited some boys over to watch it and have a masturbation party. Matt is properly aghast at the news and tries to determine whether or not his daughter actually saw any pornography.
Liz's father punches Sid in the eye in one of Sid's more obnoxious moments. Matt smacks Alex on the rear at one point when she's being particularly insubordinate. (She retorts, "Did you just spank me?") Matt asks Sid what he should do to the man who cheated with his wife, and Sid suggests doing something violent to his anatomy with a "spiked bat."
Crude or Profane Language
About 25 f-words and a dozen or so s-words. God's name is abused nearly 10 times. (Half the time it's paired with "d‑‑n.") Jesus' name is misused twice. We hear multiple uses of "tw-t," "p‑‑‑y" and "pr‑‑k" (all as derogatory put-downs; often said by Matt's daughters). Matt calls Sid a "retard." We hear "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch" and "h‑‑‑." Scottie makes an obscene hand gesture.
Drug and Alcohol Content
When we first meet Alex, she's gotten drunk with her friends. (We briefly see her with a bottle in her hand.) Dad reprimands her, but she insists that just getting drunk (instead of using drugs, which is a problem we hear she's also had in the past) is a step in the right direction.
Throughout the rest of the movie, mostly at social gatherings of various sorts, adults are shown drinking beer and wine. Sid brags to Matt that he "always has weed."
Other Negative Elements
Alex's deep brokenness yields seething contempt for her mother and, at times, almost complete disrespect for her father as well. Matt repeatedly lies. Some of those lies involve trying to arrange a meeting with Brian Speer. Alex inserts herself into that process and, like her dad, also lies.
One of the trailers for The Descendants pictures George Clooney's character, Matt King, running awkwardly—in flip-flops—down a steep street after he learns his wife has cheated on him. And while that scene (and much of the trailer) is played off as tragicomedy, there's a lot more tragedy in this film than comedy. It's a sobering close-up of the damage done to family by the deep selfishness of self-absorbed parents.
Reflecting on his fragmented family early on, Matt likens it to an island archipelago, observing that they're "together, but separate." But by the end of the film (which is based on the 2007 novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings), it's clear that Matt is the backup parent no more. Through the refining fire of failure—his own, his wife's—he's become the real deal.
The final scene pictures him cuddling contentedly on the coach with his two daughters as they watch March of the Penguins together. And as Morgan Freeman's rich basso details the lengths to which male emperor penguins go to protect their young, you get the feeling that Matt will do whatever it takes to take care of his fledgling girls from here on out too.
And it's that thought of proper parenting that prompts me to end with this: There's quite a bit of harsh profanity and some sexual content and references that burrow into these serious themes.