George Clooney’s Dad Disservice in “The Descendants”

Posted February 22, 2012 by jimhigley

In honor of Oscar week, I’m going to tip my bobbling head to the silver screen with a few comments on some of the nominated movies I’ve actually seen this 84th year of the Academy Awards. Today? Let’s talk about “The Descendants” – a movie I have been wanting to see but have been a little nervous as to whether or not it might hit a little close to home. 

Dads Can Panic

There’s a scene in “The Descendants” where George Clooney’s character, Matt King, is seen running. Awkwardly. Out his driveway and down the winding road of his neighborhood to the home of friends after he has learned some life-changing (understatement) news about his wife and their marriage. He’s not just running to friends. He’s running from his life. And the fact that his running style makes it look like his shoes are two sizes too large – the scene becomes imperfectly perfect to me.

His flat-footed, less-than-pretty running is symbolic of a man at a crossroads in his life. A point where going back is not an option. A point where going forward is utterly confusing. And it all makes for a very ugly image.

And that, I’m sorry to say, is only one of two scenes in the entire movie I connected too.

The emotion in that scene is an emotion I understand. It’s called panic. I think it’s a pretty natural reaction for any dad standing on the ledge of the Grand Canyon-like journey of raising kids alone. The world is flip-flopped and turned inside-out. All of the grounding elements you thought existed in life are thrown out the window.

There’s a Lot of Dad Emotion I Didn’t See

I was ready for a movie that pulled at my dad heartstrings. I actually sat in the back of the theatre (I went alone), away from other people because I had a hunch this would be a movie that would get me choked-up. And my kids have long reminded me that there’s nothing more uncomfortable than a middle-aged dad crying. Alone. In a movie theatre.

But “The Descendants” didn’t pull at anything. Which I would have gladly let happen. Rather, it left me in a constant state of asking, “Where in the world are these people’s emotions?”

Example 1: The mom is critically injured in the opening minutes of the movie. She’s in a coma. And even thought it is quickly revealed that the husband and wife have a rocky marriage, her condition is treated – by her husband and two daughters – with the same level of urgency had she missed a flight home after a business trip. “Mom’s plane’s delayed. Can we go shopping?”

Example 2: It’s quickly determined the mom is going to die. Then, the oldest daughter, after learning of her mother’s fate, reveals to her dad that mom’s been having an affair. Undoubtedly, that’s heavy stuff. But what does dad Matt do in this moment when his kids are first learning that their mom is about to die? Comfort them? Keep an intense, guarded eye on them 24/7? Nope? He takes them on a treasure hunt to go find the guy mom’s been playing around with. Huh?

Example 3: As part of the above-mentioned treasure hunt, and as they pull mom off life-support, Dad takes the two girls on a quick trip to another Hawaiian island to get them away from the stress. Is that what someone would do as a family member lay dying? I’m confused. And they never talked about her while they were off on their stress-releasing get-away. Their stress relief get-away gave me massive stress.

Example 4: Woven through the storyline is a secondary story about the father and a slew of cousins who control a tremendously valuable parcel of land in Hawaii and their need – due to the end of a family trust – to dispose of it. George Clooney’s character essentially has the controlling vote as to what to do with the land. And his broad of cousins all stand to become multi-millionaires based on his decision. The most amazing thing to me with this storyline is how it could even be treated with any believable importance as Clooney’s wife lay dying. His cousins offer fleeting comments – “So sorry to hear about Elizabeth. She’s strong. I’m sure she’ll come though. Now let’s talk money.” Really? Wouldn’t even semi-emotionally connected people say – at a time like this – “Hey, let’s not focus on any of this while you’re dealing with a personal loss.”

Rebuilding a Broken Relationship with Kids Takes Time

I think the biggest disappointment – after hearing that this movie was about a disconnected dad and his journey of becoming connected with his kids – is that nothing made a statement about that process.

The process of building a strained relationship.

That’s a painful journey.

It requires incredible patience. And selflessness. It’s filled with self-doubt. And guilt. It’s a journey that would take most men to the darkest place they have ever experienced.

I was confused that Clooney’s character was more consumed with himself. I didn’t see him selflessly focus on his two children. I didn’t see him open himself up and be vulnerable to their hurt. I didn’t really even see him be present through their pain (As evidenced by first seeing him have another person tell his youngest daughter that her mom was dying and then – letting his oldest daughter walk her sister in to her mom’s hospital room to say good-bye, as he stayed in the hall.) Again, way too confusing to me.

I was let down, George. I think you did a disservice to dads who do have the internal strength to go deep with their kids.

I Still Believe Life Takes Place in the Nooks and Crannies

All of this leads me to my second favorite scene in the movie. It’s the very last scene.

It takes place sometime after the main storyline is wrapped up. Maybe it’s a day later. Maybe it’s a week. A month. I don’t know. In this scene, Clooney and his youngest daughter are found sitting on a couch watching television. Snuggled under a quilt. Eating ice cream. They are eventually joined by the older daughter who sits down next to her dad. Close. Fade out to black with dad flanked by his kids.

Through the craziness. Insanity. They find peace.

I hope this scene took place long enough after their family tragedy. Long enough to give the father the time he needed to begin to rebuild a real relationship with his kids. A kind of relationship that only comes when a parent goes through the mud. Through the roller coaster of emotions. Through the darkness and hurt. That’s the only way a man –  a dad – can understand what his children really need from him. It’s also the only way he can truly understand what it means to be an available, conscious parent. And it makes those vanilla moments in life – life sitting under a quilt with your kids watching television – all the more valuable.

So, while I’m not a fan of this movie (but still a fan of Clooney), I’m going to pretend there’s much to the story we didn’t see.

Like real life – the real stories are hidden in the nooks and crannies.