December 17, 2011

If You Liked The Descendants, You Are A Terrible Person

poster descendants.jpgi've seen this movie before

The Descendants is not the worst movie ever made, but it may be the most subversive, and if you think it is one of the best you need to rethink your life choices.


Bring a date.  Oh, you don't have one.


The promotional tag line:

A land baron tries to re-connect with his two daughters after his wife suffers a boating accident.

You'll observe that the three women are characterized only by their connection to him, while he gets an extra identifier-- that happens to be about his wealth.   We'll come back to this.

The movie is a pyramid scheme of cliches: you can keep heaping them on as long as no one ever asks how it pays off, because it can't.  Rich but emotionally distant husband.  Complicated wife.  Family secrets, summed up by the dumb stoner toolbox improbably dating Matt's (Clooney) smart but rebellious daughter:

descendants script.jpg

That may not read like an insightful exchange between men, but I'll translate: men are never much worthy of their women.

Cue crying, laughing, yelling-- no sing-a-longs, this isn't a chick flick so male emotional progress will be symbolized instead by either jujitsu (wrong genre) or by forward physical motion: driving, walking, running, travel, now we're getting somewhere-- lots of blaming, reconciliation, "resolving of inner conflicts" and of course Act IV "closure."

Love is complicated, death is complicated, and a movie about both would be, well, complicated, especially when you throw in infidelity.  But despite what you will hear and read from critics, The Descendants is neither complicated nor about any of those things. 

Here's your first hint: it's called The Descendants.


clooney and payne.jpg

just saying

I am not an expert on what makes a good or a bad movie, if it's bad you'll ignore it and anyway, best case scenario, two minutes after it wins Best Picture it will go the way of Cold Mountain.   The real power of movies that do not involve giant robots is not what they tell you about yourself, but that they tell you how to think about yourself.  You don't think you learned that from your parents, do you?

This is the "Personal Quote" on director Alexander Payne's IMDb page:

It's my hope that we're getting into an era where the value of a film is based on its proximity to real life rather than its distance from it. 

By "proximity to real life" does he mean "was playing 20 minutes away form my real life" because the only commonality between the film and my life is that they are both shot in color.  So whose real life is this proximate to and how do they think about themselves?  Let's listen.


Here's what happened about 15 minutes into the movie.  I'm sitting three or four rows in front of two 50ish women.  In a key emotional scene teen daughter Alexandra blubbers through her mixed up adolescent tears that dying mom wasn't happy and was cheating on him.  He is floored, devastated-- he had no idea.   So he literally runs down the street to a couple that was friends with his wife, and they reluctantly admit that it is true-- and that she was planning on divorcing him.  At this moment one of the women seated behind me says, loudly, as if making an important discovery about human nature and I swear I am not making this up, "A divorce!  And all that money!"

Son of a bitch, am I an idiot.  That thought never occurred to me.  It's legitimate, it would be a huge part of divorcing characters' reality, and I missed it because, dumb stupid me, I was thinking this was about love and infidelity.  But of course it isn't.  At all.  On second viewing (thanks Sweden) it's obvious.  There is no love depicted anywhere in this film and its target demo knew not to expect it, not to look for it.  Yes it's about family and sadness and betrayal but love?  Middle aged people don't love, duh, love is for 20 year olds.  Besides, what does that demographic know about love anyway, where would they have learned it?   The rom-coms all ended right when the relationship begins.  There's no consistent model for love ten years after marriage, except ones based on: infidelity, divorce, death, finances.  Which is exactly why the first two happen so often in response to the second two.

The few happy movies about mid-life "love" are not about established marriages (those are always sitcoms) but about new relationships, starting over, new beginnings, play-acting the story lines of their twenties but with a "mature" take, i.e. some middle aged mother of two looks in a mirror before her first big date in years and laments how old she is now and how ugly she's gotten, as played by Nicole Kidman or Jennifer Aniston.   Wow, nailed it, I can completely relate.  I'm not knocking these movies for existing or for casting these hairless nymphomaniacs, I'm simply posing the general question: since the audience has learned nothing from their own parents, and they don't read 19th century Russian literature, what is their model for love in the 2nd decade of marriage?  They don't have one.  Which is why when this demo finds themselves in the 2nd decade of marriage they feel unfulfilled, anxious, depressed, is this all there is? They have nothing to guide them except The Discovery Channel and mommy blogs, and they lack the courage to analyze their ennui, so these movies serve the important function of pretending that it's normal.  "Oh, yeah, that's exactly what I'm feeling."  Fine, but don't you also want to know why you feel that way?

There are, of course, plenty of people with normal marriages who still love each other despite the absence of windfall inheritances and relentless drama.  But they won't be seeing this movie.

Normal love between two normal people that is not clandestine or inappropriate or impossible or financial is not revealed here, it is not even imagined here.   The couple with the "best" marriage-- and no whites in this movie have a good marriage--  are the wife's elderly parents, but don't worry, no  love there either: mom has severe dementia, so dad is her caretaker.  That may sound like love but that odd backstory means that no male in this movie is ever depicted dialoguing meaningfully with a female of his age group, unless they are arguing.  And no one notices this weird feature of the movie's world because that's the world the audience lives in as well.   And what does this grieving but wise old former soldier say to Clooney about his daughter's infidelity and death?  "If only you had let her go on those shopping sprees women like, maybe she wouldn't have needed to get her thrills elsewhere."  I wish I made that up.  Life is priceless, but for everything else, there's Mastercard.

These depictions of mid-life's relentless pragmatism, isolation, and lack of anything-- what word can I use that doesn't bring out the psychotics?-- "abstract," dressed up in porno-level dramatics to mask the banality of it all are no more realistic than a fat guy's second chance with the girl that got away (Charlize Theron), and yet they resonate with a certain audience because that's where they live, too.

In fact, the only psychologically realistic thing in this movie, and not coincidentally it will be the one thing the audience will say is the least realistic thing-- is that the older generation is so emotionally infantile that their children become parentified.  Example: Clooney passive-aggressively calls his wife's lover and leaves a message pretending to be a client, and when the guy calls back Clooney's paralyzed; so his daughter takes the phone (NB: a Blackberry) out of his impotent paw and runs the con.  Manipulating middle aged men for middle aged men.  Just the right role for a 16 year old girl.  It'll be easy to tell her drinking is bad now.   NB: the girl's mother is dying in the same room, but it's the father that needs all the attention.  She has to be strong for him.  "Save me Anna Freud, save me!"   In fact, according to the movie, here is how teen girls cope with the loss of their mother: they get over it.  It takes about 15 minutes.

It's supposedly judgmental to say that Matt is a bad father, you're supposed to say, "he's doing the best he can," which means that it's okay he's a terrible role model  because by golly he gets points for admonishing the kids not to curse.  "Watch your language," he says a lot.  HA!  That's the movie's comic relief but it's also some BF Skinner 10th dan ninjitsu.  Control of expression-- language, behavior, appearance-- substitutes for parenting, it's not for the kid but for the parent, it makes the parent think of themselves as a parent because the outside looks all presentable, and then they are just so surprised that their micro-parenting didn't prevent their ADHD teen from turning to alcohol.  "It's a disease."  I'll get my stethoscope.

"Who are you to blame me my teen's behavior?"   I don't even know you or your teen.  YOU ARE PROJECTING.  All I'm saying is if your teen is an alcoholic AND you think The Descendants is a meaningful film, then you need to bring to your therapist of ten years the possibility that the two may be the same force and that the problem isn't your teen, or your exes.  They weren't Matt's, after all.


Voice overs are supposed to be an example of bad or lazy writing, but I have a theory: when a movie has a voice over, it means the character is being dishonest.  Not "it wasn't me who stole the cookies" dishonest, but "it's not as simple as it looks, you don't know the whole story, let me explain" dishonest. In other words: BS. This can be consciously manipulative (The Usual Suspects) or unconsciously rationalizing (Sex And The City). The voice over pulls you into the mind of the character and so you are less able to make an objective assessment about what you see. What's important about it is that the story would be impossible to tell without the VO because no one would buy it.   I can see why director Alex Payne needed it for this one.

Here's a bit of human nature for you and you are most certainly not going to like it.  Fat George Clooney discovers his wife has been cheating on him-- and he never suspected.  That's a profound insult, a narcissistic injury, and no, people who complain I talk about it too much but haven't actually learned the lessons, you don't have to be a narcissist to experience a narcissistic injury, it's built into the way we relate to other people.  It's jealousy AND an existential beat down: look at the limits of your power, look at the limits of your reach, she is able to have a whole other existence that had so little to do with you you didn't even notice, nor did she feel any need to tell you.  At least if she had done it to hurt you you'd still suffer the jealousy but your place as main character in your own movie would be secure.  Maybe you're only supporting cast in hers?   "Screw that. I'm changing the script."

Three ways humans deal with narcissistic injuries, count them: 1. Rage.  But Fat George Clooney doesn't look like he's up for the physical exertion of attacking his wife, which is why he is depicted as fat and not fit (viz Sleeping With The Enemy, Unfaithful, The Last Seduction, To Die For, etc) and anyway the target is in a coma.  2.  Displaced rage: go after yourself (suicide: guarantees the Other remembers you forever) or the lover.  But if Fat George Clooney is too winded to beat up a coma patient, how's he going to fight the Alpha Penis that stole his wife?  Pass.   What he might do-- which is both highly realistic about the target demo and also the problem with the target demo-- is channel his inner 15 year old girl and stalk him, then kinda-sorta confront him, then mess up his stuff.  That'll show him.

The third way is the interesting one, the one that ruins you:  3.  Make the cheating be about yourself, your "fault" (minus any real introspection.)  Increase your pain to save your ego.  That's the path the movie chooses: she cheated not because she fell in love, or lust, but because he neglected her, he was a bad husband, he didn't take her on shopping sprees.    "As long as you don't ask me to change, I'm accepting some blame for her cheating on me."  You'll feel right as rain. 

The movie takes this a diabolical step further.  Matt finds and confronts the lover, but in an act of "selflessness" tells the guy he's not there to cause trouble, he just wants to give the guy the opportunity to say goodbye to her, too.  WOW!  What a guy!  And no one thinks this is preposterous.  The audience sees this as a redemptive act, a kind act, a noble act, and that's because they are all idiots.  No, no, I mean every single one of them.  They are (thanks, VO)  starting from a false premise: that he actually really loved his wife in the first place.  He didn't.  That's why she was cheating.  To illustrate just how inconceivable "love" is to this audience, I'll explain that this selfless offer is how the scene starts, but the point of the scene, how it ends, is with Clooney realizing that the guy bedded her for his money.  So not only did she cheat because of him, the lover chose her because of him.  Narcissistic injury averted-- that's what passes as "coming to terms with" infidelity for this audience.

While the 50 year old women behind me and every critic in America are applauding his apparent selflessness, they overlook the fact that while he wasn't angry when he confronted the lover, he became angry when he discovered the true target was his finances. That's what gets him fuming, and that's what makes sense to the audience.  Penis and vagina are all very well, but if you mess with the inheritance, it's personal. 

Also observe that the lover is not better looking than Matt, not richer than him, not more interesting  than him, in every way Clooney is "better" than him.  This is a movie so it was scripted this way, but when your wife cheats on you you'll do the same thing, so remember what I'm about to tell you.  You will "discover" how much better you are than him in every way so that her cheating is explicable only as a reaction to you.  You will cry, you will drink, you will yell and you will rage, but you won't kill yourself and you won't change and that was the whole point.  The ego doesn't want happiness, it wants status quo.  Yes, you will also simultaneously disparage her as a bitchless cunt, but that's because she did it to you, against you, towards you.  This will help you eventually "come to terms with" her infidelity, but what then did you learn about yourself?  What then will you change about yourself?  Nothing.  Hence the sequel will be the same as the first movie, with a different villain.


"This is the first movie review I've ever read that attacks not the movie but the people who liked the movie."  I'm not attacking you you if you liked it, only if you identified with it.  "That's not really fair."  American Psycho was an amazing movie, but I wouldn't date anyone who identifies with it.  How is it different?  Again, the point isn't that movies tell you who you are, they tell you how to be.

Here's an example: with 100% certainty I can predict that if you liked The Descendants, if you think you would like The Descendants, then you thought American Beauty was "amazing."  That movie was, indeed, an outstanding reflection of a kind of a man and a kind of a life, but at some point before your divorce or rehab you have to consider that if you identified with the main character there is something wrong with you.

Anyone exhausted?  Here's a comedy break (NSFW): 

Louis CK:

Kevin Spacey playing the man... he's fantasizing about fucking a cheerleader in high school.  And the way they represent this, in this gay movie, this fucking bunch of cum through a projector-- according to this movie, when you fantasize about a cheerleader, you lie on your back and rose petals fall all over your body.  Instead of her hot, sweaty ass, and the confused look on her face as you cum in her stupid eye...  No, it's Kevin Spacey with a sweet look on his face, and flower petals, and jazzy music.

[And at the end of the movie, the ex-marine] is the one who's really gay.  'None of us are gay, it's actually the one hetero guy, he's the gay one.' No one else is gay, Kevin Spacey's not gay. He's straight as an arrow, he lifts weights, listens to Zeppelin, drives a Firebird-- and thinks about fucking rose petals.  And then when he actually sees her tits he almost vomits....He finally sees the 18 year old tits and says, what have I been doing all this time?  I forgot I like men....

Louis CK takes the gay angle for the comedic effect, but he understands this isn't about being gay but about a kind of American self-delusion exemplified by the Kevin Spacey character: everyone else is broken except me.  My only problem is I am surrounded by these people.  And everything gets projected onto them as both defense of the ego and as confirmation that it is, indeed, everyone else who is nuts.  "Look, she's a crazy bitch."   When he throws the plate of food against the wall you're supposed to cheer his rising manliness; you're not supposed to notice that it's infantile narcissistic rage, i.e. foreshadowing: this isn't going to have a happy ending.  The problem for the audience is that there isn't an American Beauty II, the one where he gets the rose petal girl of his dreams and inherits a billion dollars and has a perfect life in Hawaii only to discover that within 5 years everything has regressed to the mean, I mean mean, and everything happens all over again.   "Jeez, why do I attract these crazy bitches?"  Because you're crazy, dummy.  The one universal constant in all of your failed relationships is you.

At the end of The Descendants Clooney and his daughters have "overcome" or "moved on" or "come to terms with" it all.  But in fact nothing has changed.   And what has at-the-end-applaud-worthy-Dad taught his kids about human relationships?  What kind of a man do you think Alexandra is going to eventually marry?  How soon afterwards will she divorce?

Remember Clooney was going to forgo revenge and instead generously let the lover say goodbye?  Well, at the end he gets his revenge anyway, in the only way meaningful to the audience: he screws the lover out of money.

Think about this.  You'd do it, too, if the opportunity presented itself, but that's not the point.  The point is that this is a movie and hence not random, the movie chose this method of revenge.  It is satisfying to the audience, but the kind of person to whom it makes sense to punish a wife's lover financially is the kind of person... whose wife has a lover.  He will have revealed to his wife in countless other ways the transactional value of her sex, and while it may be a lot it's still finite, and so she will get the message and eventually Trade Up to an equivalent model that costs her more.  Indecent Proposal had the decency to put love over money at the end, but that didn't stop a gazillion women from shamelessly/proudly announcing how fast they'd "totally go for it", as their whipped boyfriends sat on the bar stool next to them hiding behind a frozen smiles and pints of Sam Adams.  "It's a Winter Brew."  Choke on it, cuckold.  Meanwhile none of the giggling women in the bar seemed to remember that Robert Redford was offering the money for the wife to the husband.  The trick to understanding that movie is that it isn't a female fantasy to have a rich guy offer you lots of money but a male fantasy to have a rich guy value your woman's sex at $1.57M inflation adjusted dollars, it makes the mystery of sex/"objet petit a" a concrete and understandable commodity but also puts it fantastically out of your own reach, like you're 12. 

The reason no one remembers that Redford made the deal with Woody and not Demi is that it is unremarkable to these people that that's who he would make the deal with, nothing unusual or noteworthy there, Woody is the proper owner of Demi's sex.  Yeah, they're married, that's how it works.  I can see you're upset.  I know, reality bites.  Take a drink, and consider that in The Descendants Matt's relatives are all waiting for him to sell the land so they can get their cut, and Matt's hesitant, and then says something the dummies in the audience didn't appreciate, and what he says is this:

descendants script full.png
Way to figure this all out way too late and about the wrong thing.  The land is supposed to be a metaphor for legacy, for doing the right thing with your inheritance, but I hope it is obvious that the land is a metaphor for vagina.  You may have got it for whatever bullshit reason 150 years ago, but now as the owner of that landgina you have a responsibility to tend to it.  So yes, it makes sense that the rival thought of it as a means to money, it makes sense that the Medicare patient's first thought was to alimony, and it makes sense Woody was willing to sell Demi, it makes sense Matt is more attentive to his finances then his wife,  because if you don't tend to that vagina, to that soul, then all that's left is it's resale value.  And it all makes sense to the audience, because they're psychopaths.  Is that too harsh?  Didn't they get choked up when she dies?  The Descendants has a sad ending, and it makes you sad.  That's not the sign of a well crafted movie, it's a kind of porno.  That's why they're called tear jerkers.  If you bludgeon a puppy or penetrate a vagina you do not then get to yell, "Ha!  Made you look!"

I will concede, however, that the ending of The Descendants couldn't be a more accurate representation of the generation that is only able to feel rage, sadness, anxiety, and nothing.  The last scene of the movie, symbolizing how one moves on from death and infidelity, shows Matt and his daughters, inheritance intact, watching TV.  Roll credits.  Oscar.


see also: The Strange Ascendance of The Descendants