Ben Stiller’s 2001 male modeling comedy “Zoolander” was released just a few weeks after 9/11. It didn’t do well. The consensus was that a contemplative America wasn’t interested in such aggressive silliness. At its core, “The Descendants” seems equally at odds with the current national sentiment, yet it’s been widely celebrated.
Much of the praise is deserved. Alexander Payne’s direction is tasteful, the supporting actors are engaging, and George Clooney will probably win an Oscar. The problem is with the story. Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian lawyer whose wife has fallen into a coma. The main plotline deals with King’s reaction to the revelation that his wife had previously had an affair. Not only does he have to grapple with her unfaithfulness while she hangs in limbo, he also has to figure out how to parent two daughters with their own problems. All of this is portrayed deftly, but the central story is set against a backdrop that feels strangely underdeveloped.
King is a descendant of Hawaiian royalty who controls a huge chunk of pristine Kauai real estate the family has passed down through generations. Government regulations are forcing a sale of the land, and it’s Kings job to choose a buyer on behalf of his extended family, which stands to make a fortune no matter who he picks. While the drama between King and his wife and daughters is rich and believable, the story about the land is so shallow and offensive it nearly bleeds out and ruins everything else.
The framing of this subplot is laughable: King has to decide whether or not to sell to a greedy group of outside developers who want to build a resort. This trope is deployed with equal sophistication in the “Saved by the Bell” episode where Zack saves Bayside from oil barons who would pay exorbitant fees to place derricks on the football field (moral: some things are more precious than money). King is presented as savvy and principled, so it seems a certainty he’ll come up with a more noble and inventive purpose for the acreage. He doesn’t. He predictably avoids selling to the developers, but his final solution is to search for legal loopholes that would allow his family to maintain its chokehold on the land.
The problem isn’t King’s choice per se. The problem is that the film presents it is as virtuous. Protagonists don’t need to be perfect, or even near perfect. The film itself, however, should acknowledge ethical lapses. Instead, King is presented as moral and courageous. At one point the Judy Greer character seems to speak as a voice of conscience when she tells King, “I think you’re doing the right thing.”
With the new national focus on income disparity and all the talk about the 99 percent, it is a wonder screenings of “The Descendants” have only been occupied by satisfied filmgoers. Where is the outrage? Where are the picketers? A large segment of the populous is agitating for public policy solutions to the growing income gap, and the coming election may hinge on that debate. King’s world is one in which laws meant to break up generational fortunes are already in place. His plan is to circumvent those laws with legal tricks tantamount to evading taxes with Cayman bank accounts. The audience is meant to applaud the choice, but at least the developers would have created a space accessible to the public. King’s plan would ensure that a huge parcel of paradise remains the private campground of one privileged family.
Alternatives are obvious. King could sell or even donate the land to the state on the condition it be turned into a park or wildlife preserve. He could sell to a group willing to build a museum or cultural center that would honor his ancestors. It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t need to be a paragon of virtue, the film just needs to communicate its awareness that King’s ultimate choice is, in some ways, equally repugnant as selling to the developers.
Like “Zoolander,” “The Descendants” seems to have been released at the worst possible time. The weird thing is that nobody seems to have noticed.