Backup parenting paralysis
Legacy is a crippling sensation that we are all trying to fight. We naively assume that in the grand scheme of things our actions are somehow always parallel to how people experience us. Neglecting to consider that memory is a personal politic. That the way our peers experience us is a casual accident of perception to which we are at most secondary participants and worst unwitting bystanders. The summary of our life is channeled through the minds of those we leave behind as too we channeled the lives of those who came before us.
This is a film whose primary thesis is trying to bridge this reality or at least that is what Matt the main character of the film attempts to do. It’s a tragedy that this of all of Alexander Payne’s films is his most eulogised, for no reason other than that it lacks the creative and witty wreath of his earlier works (practically Sideways, which was a film stacked on crude unforgiving bits of homour churned up in the stylistic rendering of the Payne reality machine)
The descendants is essentially about a man who has to look after his kids , and ensure that his comatose wife gets an a decent send off. As Matt attempts to piece together the shards of his marriage he is further fragmented by finding out that his wife had been cheating and planning to leave him. What Payne does well in this film I showcase how easily white privileged men of a certain age get so easily distracted. This obsession with little subplots and nuances is something that is apparent in Matt’s outlook throughout the film. The idea of boxing in each detail, accurately putting it in its place as the only way of making sense of our lives and those of others.
Unfortunately the compartmental kind of thinking is the reason why Matt’s experience and ultimately the film tend to feel a bit dragged out. I can’t help but feel that Payne somewhere in the middle of this picture lost the veracity of cinematic expressionism. The high pitched pace of the middle aged man is nowhere to be found; instead he has used a more labored and less enthusiastic stylistic techniques. Employing several long montages particularly in the late part of the film; leaving you with the feeling that you have in many ways been cheated out of actual insight into what some very interesting characters. Including Matt’s youngest daughter who insists she is immune to the ill effects of listening to foul language and openly talks about porn.
The descendants does however excel as a tour de force caricature of affluent realities and the idea of how out of touch men can be. From the onset Payne has given us this reality in a simple yet effective manner when Matt in the opening narration referrers to himself as “the understudy,” and “the back-up parent.” This is a middle class paralysis that Payne could have explored so much further. The idea of secondary parenting as a sustained state of gathering data, small data like the fact that his daughter doesn’t like eggs. Also the notion of male centralism even in issues in which these backup men have no direct decision making role. In several parts of the film Matt views himself as the glue that is common to all the dysfunctional women around him. This film I feel is fundamentally flawed by it encompassing nature. The many subplots render it difficult to deliver a straight and affirmative message, and perhaps that was Payne’s point. That living in itself is a series of incidents that collide simultaneously and result in life. But if that is the message than here it is a bit excessive and the emotional effect is at best middling.