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Film / The Descendants

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The Descendants is a 2011 dramedy film, directed by Alexander Payne and based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. The film stars George Clooney as a Hawaii based lawyer. When his wife is in a boating accident and is left in a coma, he has to care for his daughters on his own, despite knowing little about them, while fighting a breakdown when he's told his wife's living will demands she be taken off life support. When one of his daughters reveals that his wife was cheating on him, he begins a journey with his daughters (and one of his daughter's 'friends') to find the man, partially to confront him and partially to tell him he should come say goodbye before she dies. No relation to Descendants.

The film provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Name Change: Matt's wife's name was originally Joanie in the novel. It was changed to Elizabeth in the film.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Averted with Elizabeth while on life support. The small amount we see of her at the start of the movie before the accident is rather attractive, but as the movie progresses, her body becomes more and more emaciated until she is just a ghost of who she was physically by the time they shut off life support.
  • Bedroom Adultery Scene: Referred to when Matt asks his wife's lover if he's ever been in their bedroom, which the man confirms
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Cousin Hugh is a friendly and nice guy played by Beau Bridges. He also makes it clear that if Matt doesn't sell the land, he will come after him legally. Matt even Lampshades this in his narration:
    Don't be fooled. In Hawaii some of the most powerful people look like bums and stuntmen.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Matt doesn't sell the land like his cousins and business partners want him to and they become at odds, Brian and Julie have a falling out but are implied to be reconciling and Elizabeth dies, but Matt is able to make amends with his kids Alex and Scottie.
  • Blatant Lies: Several times people comment that they're sure that Elizabeth will pull through and Matt agrees, even though he's been told she's being taken off life support and will die soon.
  • Brake Angrily: Matt does this when Sid (already sporting a swollen eye, courtesy of Elizabeth's father) jumps up and down on his Berserk Button.
    You little fuck! Do you get hit a lot?
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter: Alex appears to be this but then it's revealed that her problems partly come from knowing that her mother was having an affair.
  • Broken Pedestal: Alex had hers broken when she caught her mother cheating on Matt. She confronted Elizabeth about it, and she then tried to deny it.
  • Brutal Honesty:
    • Matt asks Brian if he's ever been in Matt's bedroom during the affair with Elizabeth. When Brian says he has once, Matt tells him he should've lied. Brian then corrects himself: "Alright, twice."
    • When annoyed about Elizabeth's friend justifying the affair, Matt harshly tells her that Elizabeth is not going to wake up, so there's no need to keep defending her, reducing her to tears.
  • Calling Your Attacks: Elizabeth's father when Sid laughs at his wife's dementia: "I'm going to hit you." *punch*
  • Captain Obvious: When Elizabeth's friend points out Matt's feeling angry about learning of Elizabeth's affair, he snarks, "You have a very keen sense of observation."
  • Clashing Cousins: Averted, while some of Matt's cousins want to sell the land and others don't, they're fairly civil about their disagreement in the meeting we see (although most of it is just covered in Matt's Voice Over) and it's unclear if Hugh. ultimately goes through with his threat after Matt pulls out. or not based on his facial expressions after Matt's reply to his Beware the Nice Ones comment.
  • Comedic Sociopathy:
    • A weird example. Matt isn't intentionally cruel or unfeeling, he just literally has no idea how to connect with his kids.
    • Sid, who finds Matt's mother-in-law's dementia quite hilarious, and gets a punch in the face for the trouble. He's also not malicious, however — just very, very stupid.
      • In Sid's "defense," he was possibly very stoned at the time (he seems to sober up as the film progresses).
  • Converse with the Unconscious: Matt encourages lots of people to visit and speak to Elizabeth while she is in the hospital, and before bringing in the kids he has one last fight with her. Played with in that Matt already knows for some time that Elizabeth's condition will not improve, and in fact will only decline as time passes, so her death is inevitable. He still publicly speaks in hopeful terms for most of the movie, mostly to avoid awkward conversations.
  • Creator Cameo: Kaui Hart Hemmings, who wrote the novel, plays Matt's secretary.
  • Demoted to Extra: Scottie had a somewhat larger role in the novel (she confronts Troy at the club, and has several moments of acting out by hurting herself) than the film.
  • Dude, Not Funny!: In-Universe example. Sid laughs uncontrollably at Elizabeth's mother's dementia. Her father eventually punches him in the face.
    • A subversion is when Matt calls Sid a retard, and Sid, seemingly outraged, retorts that his brother is mentally disabled. Turns out Sid is just joking.
  • Dumbass Has a Point: Sid tells Matt not to use retarded in a derogatory fashion, claiming to have a mentally-challenged brother; although he was lying, he's still right.
  • Dysfunction Junction: Matt is a workaholic who can't connect with his kids; Elizabeth, before her accident, cheated on Matt, was a self-absorbed adrenaline junkie (and was implied to have a lot of other problems as well); Alex drinks, used to do drugs and really gets around, and has issues believing her parents, or at least her mother, don't care about her; and Scottie is involved in (at least mild) cyberbullying, has a friend who throws parties involving porn videos, and shows pictures of her comatose mother to her class.
  • Easily Forgiven: One could argue Elizabeth gets off pretty easy given that she was evidently willing to cast her husband and daughters aside and tried to seduce a married man away from his family. Although her actions and motivations are framed with an appropriately reproachful attitude, her death causes the film to treat them as in the past, and ultimately the movie ends with Matt bidding her a fond farewell. On the other hand, 'gets off pretty easy' is a fairly relative claim seeing as she spends the entire movie in an irreversible coma with no hope of recovery; since the characters only learn of what she did and planned after this, and since there's nothing else they can do which is worse than what has already happened to her, the only healthy option for them is to make their peace with it and move on.
  • Entertainingly Wrong: When Matt learns that Brian Speer, the man his wife had an affair with, works with Holitzer, the man in charge of the proposal to buy the family land that Matt was leaning towards, Matt begins to assume that Speer got close to his wife to get an insider so he could have a leg up in getting Holitzer the land. When confronted about this, Speer quickly denies that there was any ulterior motive in sleeping with her. It was just shallow attraction and sex, nothing deeper (to him at least).
  • Freudian Excuse: The reason why Alex drinks, parties and hates her mother so much is because she caught her mother having an affair.
  • From the Mouths of Babes: Thanks to being around Alex so much, little Scottie has an impressionable potty mouth herself.
    Scottie: She's a TWAT! TWAT! TWAT! TWAT! TWAT! TWAT!
    • Reina (a minor character in both the movie and novel and Scottie's friend) is a fountain of this trope, and as much or more of where Scottie gets it from as Alex.
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: Played with. Matt angrily shouts down one of his wife's friends when she tries to justify the affair with the "she was lonely" excuse, but refuses to let Alex tarnish Scottie's image of her mother, even if it would the honest course of action. Brian, for his part, makes it clear that he regrets the affair and considered it nothing more than a fling, and had no interest in leaving his family to run off with Elizabeth despite her asking him to at least once. After he comes clean about it to his wife, they have a bit of a falling-out, but it's implied they'll get past it eventually.
  • Hates Their Parent: Alex resents her mother because she caught her cheating, and the fact that she continued to deny it even when she was confronted.
    Alex: A few days later, I told her I knew what she was doing.
    Matt: And?
    Alex: And first, she acted like she had no idea what I was talking about. Like I’m fucking blind! And then she got like super mad, and yelled, and denied it. That was when I decided I didn’t want anything more to do with her.
  • Hidden Depths: Alex comes off as a typical bratty, rebellious daughter for the first half-hour, with little care to her mother's plight. Then we learn it's because she caught her mother sleeping with another man and was disgusted at how her mother threw the family away while denying the whole thing.
    • Sid may be a deadbeat, but he's spot on about Elizabeth's father being a jerk, and seems to sober up as the film goes on. There's also the bit where he confided in Matt that his father was killed by a drunk driver, and that adding insult to injury, his father was drunk also, meaning he has a pretty good idea what Alex is going through.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Matt tells Alex to watch her language, then seconds later calls Sid a "little fuck".
  • Idle Rich: Matt and his family are descended from the first white land owners of Hawaii. While Matt has left almost all of his money in a trust, the rest of his family are deep in debt and are dead set on selling the rest of the land to pay off their debts. By the end Matt has changed his mind.
  • Intrafamilial Class Conflict: On top of everything else, Matt is forced to deal with, he has to decide what to do with land that he inherited from his family, as it's been held in a trust for years, but the trust is about to expire. Matt, who has been a successful lawyer and has lived within his means, wants to keep the land undeveloped, as it's some of the last pristine wilderness on Kauai. His cousins, on the other hand, who are mostly working class and have not been living so frugally, want him to sell the land and split the money with them.
  • Kiss Diss: Matt delivers this to Julie (the spouse of his wife's lover), when she and his family are all saying their goodbyes and she goes to kiss him goodbye on the check — only for Matt to turn and kiss her goodbye directly on the lips. This leads to Post-Kiss Catatonia between them and for Julie to suspect "something off" about her marriage.
  • Match Cut: Shots of the back of George Clooney's head at the big family meeting and at his wife's sickbed.
  • Maybe Ever After: It's left open whether Julie and Brian will be able to move past the affair.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Alexandra spends most of the movie in bikinis, midriff tops and short shorts (though the warm tropical location at least partially justifies this). Not to mention being played by Shailene Woodley.
  • No Hugging, No Kissing: Sid is probably Alex's boyfriend, but she never refers to him as more than just a friend within the movie. On one hand, they spend a lot of time together during the movie with Sid coming along for much of the adventure, on the other, the most they do is hug.
  • Non-Idle Rich: Compared to the rest of his family, Matt is very responsible with his inheritance and has a successful law practice (which is why he's in charge of handling the sale of the land). However, he is too focused on work at the cost of alienating his wife and having not much of a connection with his daughters.
  • Not So Stoic: Matt is usually very calm. It makes the moments where he finally breaks all the more noticeable.
  • Oh, Crap!: Brian damn near shits himself when finally confronted by Matt and Alex.
  • Parents as People: Matt is a workaholic who is struggling to connect with his children. Elizabeth was a self-absorbed adrenaline junkie who cheated on her husband and her refusal to admit the affair caused problems with her oldest daughter. Elizabeth's father, meanwhile, is a gruff, jerkish man, and they have to keep the truth about his daughter's infidelity from him because he's so old-fashioned he wouldn't be able to deal with it.
  • Please Wake Up: Matt does this in voiceover to his wife, silently promising her that he'll do everything for her if she'll just wake up.
  • Posthumous Character: Sort of.
  • Scenery Porn: Even the most basic shots are gorgeous to look at. It is Hawaii after all. Subverted in the opening montage, with various shots of what living in Hawaii can look like.
    Matt: "People think I live in Paradise? Paradise can go fuck itself."
  • Shout-Out: At the end the family watches March of the Penguins together. Making it especially poignant is that they're watching Morgan Freeman discussing how Antarctica was once a tropical paradise, and slowly moved south and became covered in ice as the tectonic plates shifted. Matt and his kids live in the tropical paradise of Hawaiʻi. Nothing lasts forever...
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: All. The. Time.
  • The Stoic: Matt.
  • Taken Off Life Support: After the boating accident that left Matt's wife in a coma, her will dictates that she be taken off life support and the film explores his struggle to do so. He does so and she dies.
  • "Take That!" Kiss: After conversing with Brian, his wife's lover, about the negative effects of his infidelity on his family and marriage, Matt kisses Brian's wife Julie goodbye as payback for what he's done and this motivates a (now) curious and suspecting Julie to confront Brian on his recent behavior due to the infidelity.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Scottie's friend who throws parties where she shows off her father's porn stash.
    • Scottie tosses several lawn chairs into the swimming pool, brags about another girl growing pubic hair at school and is not afraid to pass around pictures of her mother's comatose body in the hospital around for her friends to look at.
  • The Unfair Sex: Defied. Kai tries to cite loneliness as the cause of Elizabeth's infidelity, but Matt's having none of it.
    Matt: So you're gonna talk to me in clichés about women? Nothing is ever a woman's fault!
  • Wham Line: During a discussion with her father Matt about why she still hates her mother (even on her deathbed) and why she refuses to make amends with her, Alexandra drops this to Matt.
    Alexandra: You really don't have a clue, do you? Dad... Dad, Mom was cheating on you!
  • When You Coming Home, Dad?: Matt is implied to have been so busy with work that he didn't have much time for his two daughters. As such, when Elizabeth is left comatose, he struggles to relate to both of them.