Remember the famous line about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, “Sure he was great, but don’t forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards … and in high heels”? Keep that in mind while enjoying Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, in which disaffected dad George Clooney finds himself by sliding into his wife’s shoes.
Even as the balance between working parents gradually shifts in America, and co-parenting becomes the hard-won norm, on the screen it tends to be a big deal when mom disappears and suddenly dad has to tie on her apron. Mom sacrifices her life to awaken dad’s inner parent — it’s so Bambi!
Clive Owen did the single-parent weepy The Boys Are Back; Steve Carell touchingly separated laundry in Dan in Real Life; and just in time for Christmas, Matt Damon does a similar dance in We Bought a Zoo.
In each case, a mom’s death or coma forces the hero to cast aside his
selfish ways, belatedly appreciate the major task mothering is and,
ultimately, evolve into responsible adulthood.
As much as I adore The Descendants,
it amuses me that male-driven Hollywood believes motherhood has more
dramatic impact when presented by a man. What’s funny, given how few
strong leading roles there are for women, is that it’s front-page news
when an actor like perennial bachelor Clooney has to put the kids to bed
at night — and realizes that being a mother isn’t easy. Who knew?
movies, parenthood often equals motherhood. And, in an unfortunate
twist, this focus continues to marginalize the mothers while making a
hero of the “Mr. Mom” who rises to the occasion. It’s like the
old whine that when dad stays home with the kids it’s “babysitting,”
and when mom does it, that’s her job and anything less is suspect.
character, Matt King, doesn’t even spend time “babysitting.” While his
comatose spouse slips away following a water-skiing accident, this
charming but selfish Hawaiian lawyer must reconnect with his two
daughters. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on his decision to sell a
tract of family-owned Hawaiian paradise to developers.
movie opens, Matt is a paper-shuffler in paradise; he sees the sky and
palm trees outside his office window, but he’s disconnected from the
beauty. Matt’s also estranged from his family. But with his wife on
life support, Matt suddenly finds himself solely responsible for their
two daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller).
awkward in this new role. When he says he was “the backup parent,”
there’s a bit of pride there, like a kid who’s gotten someone else to do
his homework. But it’s left him ill-prepared when the girls
“test” their father — they don’t automatically do what they’re told.
Hello: That’s what kids do; they don’t need a mom-in-a-coma to know
their roles. They need to be parented, and since Matt’s been the
emotionally unavailable father, they also need to be nurtured (read:
mothered) through the kind of crisis that either galvanizes or cripples a
Hard-partying Alexandra calls her father out
in that way teens have: It may be true that no one sees us more truly,
or more unsparingly, than our teenage children. And so Alex drops a
bomb: She’d caught Mom cheating before the accident. That news gets
Matt’s attention and sets him on a path toward real change. Perhaps,
unconsciously, Alexandra knows that if she doesn’t wake her father up,
she’ll be saddled with the mother’s role.
After the revelation,
jealousy motivates Matt. Bereaved and enraged, Matt tries to identify
and confront his rival. It’s a useless journey, but Matt brings his
daughters along. Sure, he would have been better off taking them to a
ballgame, or to see The Help,
but at least they have a unified mission. Gradually, by acting
together, they bond and begin to build an honest relationship. A genuine
father is born. In Hollywood at least (though not under my roof),
this committed male parent is still a novelty.
By being forced
to assume the role of mother in his wife’s absence, Matt gradually evolves. His character moves from being contentedly absent to joyfully present.
He gains empathy and compassion. This change also returns him to nature
— he’s no longer willing to let profit drive his decision to sell his
family birthright to a developer.
It’s as if, in our society,
until a man takes on that load, until he stays home and shepherds the
kids, the simple everyday achievement lacks dramatic weight. It’s an
irony that Ginger Rogers, dancing backwards, would have appreciated.