The malaise of Matt’s life materializes after an accident involving his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), whose living will mandates that she be taken off life support. They had been growing distant, as he devoted himself to economic frugality and his work as a lawyer, while Elizabeth maintained the home base raising their two daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller). Elizabeth’s death imminent, Matt is faced with the strenuous work of setting things right at home. But he also must satisfy the desires of his cousins. For 150 years, the Kings have maintained control of lush Hawaiian wilderness, and Matt is pressured to sell the land to real estate developers, a move ensuring exorbitant riches for the already well-off (though spoiled and irresponsible) King clan. Matt’s in the tricky position of needing to please everybody: his bloodline, his grieving in-laws, the people of Hawaii, etc, and only he can make the decision to sell or maintain the ancestral land. “Paradise can go fuck itself,” he says of the outside world’s ideas about Hawaii, the vacation getaway where people are still capable of injury, misery, conquest, and being forgotten in time. During Matt’s opening words of crestfallen paradise, we see impoverished and indigenous faces of Hawaii, a Polynesian locale restructured as a getaway, a bastion of forgetfulness for tourists and residents alike. Like Miles (Paul Giamatti) and his cherished 1961 bottle of wine in Sideways, Matt is getting older, having peaked as it were, with nowhere to go but down to oblivion.
The immediacy of Matt’s tragedy isn’t accelerated by the prospect of Elizabeth’s death as much as it is by her infidelity. Daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), a sassy and rebellious 17-year-old, breaks the news about Elizabeth’s lover, a real estate salesman named Brian Speer (Matt Lillard). This was no frivolous affair, as Elizabeth was falling deeply in love, preparing to leave Matt. Family friends, in addition to Alexandra, have kept this “unique and dramatic situation” (as a complicit buddy dubs the situation) secret from Matt, a man too preoccupied to see the eventual termination of a marriage he knew was troubled, but which he assumed to still have time.
Matt's unresolvable problem with a terminal spouse echoes a situation Alexander Payne has dramatized before. In About Schmidt, the recently retired Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) discovers the 25-year-old love-letters of his deceased wife, who unexpectedly died of an aneurysm. All of Schmidt's emotions amount to nothing. The cuckold, as say Harold Bloom describes Othello (who isn’t a cuckold, but believes he may be), is faced with how he’s running out of time: the “luxury” of a lull into the future is cast off, as his time, or presumed sex life to spawn and make a home, becomes somebody else’s. And for the worse, the cuckold oftentimes rebukes his lover or spouse, even – as with Othello and poor Desdemona – killing them. But Matt King and Warren Schmidt are out of luck. Matt King rants at Elizabeth’s inert body, a scene that’s both heart-breaking, like Marlon Brando’s monologue to his wife’s corpse in Last Tango in Paris, and oddly hilarious, given that just moments earlier Matt held his composure, chiding his daughter for her harsh words to the body. Unlike Othello or Brando in Last Tango, Matt can’t afford to throw himself into a reckless abandon, submitting to his passions and grief. Precisely because he can’t afford to look ridiculous, he looks ridiculous. He is impotent to satisfying himself.
If Matt could take at least the slightest modicum of consolation in knowing that Brian Speer, with that toothy douchebag Realtor smile, is kind of an absurd replacement (I think an audience is supposed to be a little amused that a woman is cheating on George Clooney with Matt Lillard, who has slightly swollen up since his heyday 10 years ago), he is more brutally hurt by the major coincidence of the affair. Matt wants to know who Brian Speer is, if not to get some sort of revenge or satisfaction by punching Speer in the face, then by at least doing what Elizabeth would have probably wanted and informing him that she is going to die. He discovers that the Speer family, including beautiful wife Julie (Judy Greer) and two sons, are renting a house on some King land, and asks the boozy Cousin Hughie (Beau Bridges) about them.
The news is unbearable. Brian Speer’s company is the buyer of the King’s untouched wilderness, and Speer himself will overlook the development of hotels and vacation-oriented properties on the same fertile frontier Matt’s family has enjoyed for over a century. The Darwinian turmoil of infidelity’s implications – of being bested by a superior male – is hilariously inflated by the metaphor’s invasion of reality. As Matt absorbs the news, Payne frames Clooney with an old black and white photograph of a Hawaiian woman of Native descent accompanied by a white man, while the bar’s sound is decorated by some local performers, whose Hula music has been overtaken by a distinctly European yodel. Speer’s name denotes a sort of indigenous tribal conflict, in addition to a phallus, and it seems that Matt King’s crown as ruler of the land has been usurped along with his illusion of stable husbandry. To put it a little coarsely, Brian Speer might as well be fucking Elizabeth in Matt’s bed, on top of Matt’s corpse, with Matt’s children, if not all of Hawaii, watching. He is conquered. Infidelity is equated with Post-Colonial peril in The Descendants.
As a man, Brian Speer is hardly extraordinary or noble, just as he disappoints Matt by not quite being the insufferable douchebag demanded by jealous love. Speer cowers when Matt confronts him, knowing that his own marriage would be imperiled by his affair seeping out. Matt struggles to keep his rage balanced, his questions leading to as to whether or not the two did sleep together in Matt’s house, on his bed. He tells Brian the grim news about Elizabeth, but the lover's reaction is stilted shock more than heartache. Matt’s retaliation amounts to merely an inappropriate kiss on Julie’s lips. The sore notion is that relationships are tantamount to the ownership of property.
Who owns the future, having control of time and the leisure to do what one desires in their limited space? It’s a recurrent Payne theme. In Citizen Ruth, different political factions literally fight it out for control of the future in the form of an unborn fetus. Election’s fledging schoolteacher Jim McCallister (Matthew Broderick) struggles to make a baby at home, fails at consummating an affair elsewhere, and can’t shape the future of school politics in accordance to his wishes; whether as teacher or tour-guide (his occupation at the film’s conclusion), he doesn’t move history forward, but he narrates it as a sterile and aging onlooker, an idea Payne and co-screenwriter Jim Taylor illustrate as McCallister sneaks out of bed to sip beer and watch pornos in his basement (note that he does nothing beyond watching), while the amoral and unethical Tracy Flick (Reese Whitherspoon), whose name becomes confused with the procreative act when written on cupcakes (“FLICK” = FUCK, in case you didn’t figure it out), rises through the elite ranks of the world, presumably screwing her way to world domination. In Sideways, Jack (Thomas Haden Church) and Miles are both running out of time as they chug through middle age like so many bottles of wine: Jack is getting married to a beautiful Armenian woman, but he's plagued by his “plight” to sow as many wild oats as possible before saying “I do,” while Miles’ alcoholism and depression are motivated by his dwelling on the past. Near the end of the film, the discovery of his ex-wife's pregnancy by a more well-adjusted, wealthy, and handsome suitor, overwhelms him with some powerful emotion (Grief? Fear? Anger? Dread?) Jealousy in a comedy has rarely been so existential.
Payne’s body of work comprises a human comedy about a thinking individual’s dread of insignificance and mortality, with no children, friends, or documents to hand off a wished-for memory. The theme is most clearly voiced by Schmidt, who admits, “So much has happened in my life that whole chunks of my life just seem gone and erased,” a line narrated just as a large bug splats on his windshield. He visits a Nebraska history museum and reflects on the Native Americans, “Those people got a raw deal.” As for the pioneers, they are commemorated with a placard saying, “The Cowards Never Started. The Weak Died on Their Way. Only the Strong Arrived. They Were the Pioneers.” Schmidt understands, like Miles and Matt King, that he’s not a pioneer. “We’re all pretty small in the big scheme of things,” he narrates at the film’s conclusion, writing to Ndugo, the African child he sponsors through a starvation relief organization. “And I suppose all you can hope for is to make some kind of difference. But what kind of difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me?...I am weak. And I am a failure. There’s just no getting around it. Relatively soon, I will die. Maybe in 20 years. Maybe tomorrow. It doesn’t matter. Once I am dead, and everyone who knew me dies too, it will be as though I never even existed. What difference has my life made to anyone? None that I can think of. None at all.” Like Phineas’ funeral in A Separate Peace, taught by Miles to his English class in Sideways, there is a deep sense of encountering one’s own funeral and being so depressed, because of that “raw deal,” that one can’t even cry. You will be forgotten, an idea reinforced in The Descendants by the presence of Elizabeth’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother.
Even the fates of the winners, implies aren’t permanent. The King family is much more fortunate than Mr. McCallister, Miles and Jack, and the numbed, "wood-man" struggling to awake, Warren Schmidt. Even in the “Paradise” of Hawaii, no one is “immune to life.” In the parley of Jared Diamond’s guns, germs, and steel (and more especially, maybe in Diamond’s idea of collapsing civilizations), Conquered and Conqueror eventually double each other, as the blood of King’s white ancestors overtook the Polynesian genes of the 19th century Hawaiian king. Pictures of Hawaii’s poor and forgotten indigenous descendants are played over The Descendants’ bitter introduction, where Matt King fumes, “Paradise can go fuck itself.” Yesterday’s King is tomorrow’s Pauper, or Mr. McCallister, Miles, and Warren Schmidt.
Lying becomes a placating antidote. Duplicity is the means by which Payne's characters maintain a semblance control, bending the rules by altering a narrative, sometimes on a whim. But duplicity and bad faith are perilous for an inward individual struggling with the differences between fiction and non-fiction. In Sideways, Miles' lying is as deplorable as it is necessary for survival. His dishonesty reminds him of his inadequacy. At one point he steals from his own mother, but his gaze at old family photographs, along with every nuance of Paul Giamatti’s magnificent performance, conveys a knowing guilt. This fuels his drive for drinking, enabling him to temporarily forget. He is like the pinot grapes he loves so much, delicate and requiring a very specific kind of care, and lacking that, he is miserable – and lies some more. It’s only when he’s with Maya (Virginia Madsen), whose name implies a living earth, that he can bring himself to be truthful – even inadvertently betraying Jack and fumbling up his blooming love affair.
Jack has no guilt, though Miles’ mother notes that his lack of fame “is a sin,” meaning that his failures, like Miles’, have a moral element to them. Jack is pure force without reflection, versus Miles who is all reflection. Jack says to Miles, “You understand movies, literature, wine. But you don’t understand my plight.” Jack is, we learn, an actor, and he slips into alternate roles which aid his adventures in casual sex. We can imagine him aesthetically forming a myriad of new identities with each affair: he will be a part of his new Armenian father-in-law’s business after the wedding with Christine; or he will set up a nice wine country home with Stephanie (Sandra Oh); or…we can only speculate what his fantasy scenario would be like with the portly barbecue restaurant waitress. Losing his wedding rings (which have words written in the ancient Sanskrit language), though, forces him to confront the possibility of his nothingness: “If I lose Christine, I am nothing!” he cries to Miles, having left his wallet – containing the rings – at the waitress’ house, where a large and angry husband caught him with his pants off. Losing that marker of civilization and language (the Sanskrit) leaves a man to his oblivion.
This average, mid-American blue-collar couple of fat waitress and burly trucker is a (most amusing) symbol for all of Sideways’ absurd proceedings. They are discovered by Miles when he sneaks into the house to retrieve his companion’s wallet, making love and talking dirty. The man is turned on by his wife’s duplicity and infidelity; it is a fetish. The idea is then humorously politicized when Payne’s camera, doubling for Miles’ perspective, pans away from the copulating couple and across a television set showing George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, two liars who playfully massaged a nation to blissful delusion. The TV image recalls an earlier image of Hitler and his cronies earlier in the film, perpetrators of the Big Lie: lying is our opium, our poison, our stability and destruction. It’s the fuel of an apathetic gas-guzzling civilization.
For Payne, we lie to each other and ourselves to blot out that irritating truth of our nothingness. But Payne is not a nihilist. We endure and adapt. We evolve. The surprise letter to Warren Schmidt at the end of About Schmidt, implies – even if it is untrue – that Schmidt has made a difference for little Ndugo, which means a lot to him, especially after having surrendered himself to the “necessary lie,” demonstrated in his wedding speech praising his daughter’s scary new family. Miles privately drinks his beloved 1961 bottle of wine at a fast food restaurant, an act which feels both sad and actively defiant to the truth of his nothingness. Even if he is a liar, triumphing over his impulses by telling the ultimate lie at Jack’s wedding and wishing his ex-wife well with her pregnancy, his opus of fiction, the unpublished novel, was apparently based on many hurtful biographical experiences. His outcome is unknown, but we know that he still goes on looking for Maya, knocking at her door.
Matt King follows a similar pattern. He could easily tell his belittling father-in-law (Robert Forster) the truth about Elizabeth’s infidelity and how she was far from being a model wife, but he holds his tongue. It’s better to let the illusion be maintained. Julie Speer, in a moment that begins moving and becomes uproarious, comes to Elizabeth’s hospital bed to forgive her for sleeping with Brian, but it’s obvious that her words contradict the truth inside. “Unique and dramatic situations” are hushed and eased by lies. The truth doesn’t necessarily set one free (Brian Speer would be better off lying to Matt about the erotic proceedings in the King house), which is why some Payne characters require booze, porn, and large doses of humor. Alexandra’s stoner boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) comes off as an annoying and insensitive dumbbell, but his careless idiocy may have much to do with his own parent’s tragic death. He actively engages with doofy energy, buffering sorrow.
Time and evolution are merciless, and history is God’s murderous memoir of screeching, pissing, moaning, and derision as people clamor and struggle to hold on to something they can count on as being their own. The Descendants is richer than other “dramadies” because it is intimate but strangely epic, cosmological. It captures the sense of an ancient living earth, a magisterial chain of existence out of which its characters reconstruct dramas. Alexander Payne’s eye details the struggles with his uncanny blend of detachment and sympathy in a manner parallel to one of his main forebears, Stanley Kubrick, the great film artist of civilization and its discontents, from the dawn of man to beyond the infinite. In Sideways, Maya noted how her love for wine grew out of a kind of imaginative speculation, wondering about the grapes, their existence fashioned by the workers and surrounding environment, the hands, the sun, the precipitation, the wind, eventually making something “so fucking good.”
The Descendants contemplates, and beautifully accepts, the present’s link with an ancestry of forgotten voices and faces, whose imprint is there hidden in the grass and waves. The land doesn’t belong to Matt King; rather, he, like everyone else, belongs to it. Payne has a remarkable image of the jealous Matt sticking his head up over a mound of earth, spying his adversary in the game of natural selection, Brian Speer. The funny composition pointedly shows Matt’s insignificance, which is the actual insignificance of all passionate people. But he endures. He still has tears for Elizabeth, the short-fuse of anger quelled by the great scheme of evolution. Appropriately for this film decorated by Hawaiian music, a form of the hula – ‘auana – apparently refers to “wandering” or “drifting.” And the final moments of The Descendants show the King family, a father with two daughters, watching the heart-tugging, anthropomorphic documentary March of the Penguins, Morgan Freeman’s narrator mentioning “continental drift,” the great masses of land moving together and apart over millions of years. The conclusion resonates marvelously, as we may remember that the way Matt's children follow him on his journey is itself a march of Follow the Leader, hatchlings behind the Papa Bird. In Payne’s impeccable hands, The Descendants is a perfect microcosm for a universe that tries to make the best of an unreliable world of ceaseless movement, the centers unable to hold but always still drifting.