The Descendants: The Rule Against Perpetuities Provokes a Family Crisis

Who knew that you could build a successful movie out of a potential violation of the Rule Against Perpetuities?  In "The Descendants," George Clooney plays a prominent Hawaii real estate lawyer who is also the sole trustee of a family trust holding title to a large undeveloped tract of seafront property.  According to the script, under the Rule of Perpetuities the trust has to sell the property within 7 years, and the sole individual who will make this decision is Clooney, although he has indicated openness to letting members of the family weigh in with their opinions.  Various developers are vying for the opportunity to exploit this property, but many on the island are opposed, as are some in the family.  Selling the property will make all the beneficiaries of the trust fabulously wealthy.  What is Clooney to do?

Things become more complicated, as one imagines, as family issues get mixed up in the decision-making.  Clooney's wife has a water-skiing accident that leaves her in a coma, he's left to content with his two young daughters, with whom he had not built much of a relationship prior to the accident, and the usual complications one would expect in a film then ensue.  I won't say more about the plot, so as to avoid spoiling the film for anybody.

Maybe my reaction as a lawyer (law professor) puts the emphasis in the wrong place.  This is a film about family, not about law.  But it's interesting how law drives one part of the plot, although it's never really explained in the film how the rule against perpetuities is involved.  (Did they pick that for euphony?)

My take on the film – it starts being very low-key, but works up a nice head of steam.  Clooney, who rarely ever sets a foot wrong on screen, turns in a sterling performance (for which I believe he won a Golden Globe award last night and is likely to win an Oscar nomination), although I don't think this script was quite as challenging for him as some of the others he has done.  The Hawaiian setting is pretty spectacular, the supporting case is fine, and the whole thing is well put together.  I had a sense at times that The Book of Job and the play King Lear may have provided source material for the writers.  I saw this in Ormond Beach, Florida, while in town to visit my Mom, who is recuperating from an accident, so it was a bit eerie to go from the hospital scenes in the movie to real-life Rehabilitation Center scenes.  Although Mom was just napping when I was there, not in a coma, thankfully.

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