A recent spate of movies portray mothers that are dead, dying or just plain absent, leaving their handsome husbands to stitch their moribund families back together. In Descendants, George Clooney plays a man whose wife spends the whole movie in a coma after a reckless boating accident. Matt Damon is the father-left-standing in two films; as the widower haunted by his late wife in We Bought a Zoo, and as Gwyneth Paltrow’s cuckolded husband in Contagion. I actually saw Descendents twice: the first time I was put-off by its misogynist tone (everyone blames their comatose mother/wife for their problems), but I was more forgiving the second time around when watching with my teens, who really enjoyed the realism and comedy of the family’s messy predicament. In Contagion, Gwyneth Paltrow plays an adulterous wife on a business trip to Hong Kong, where she becomes patient-zero of a deadly virus. Damon is immune to the virus, and survives to care for their daughter. Although Contagion isn’t interested in the family drama – the film tracks the progress of the germ — it does fit with the meme of the heroic Dad who must hold the family together.
Bambi taught us that a child can survive the loss of their mom, and many a family drama has turned on the stalwart plot of watching a family recover from this catastrophic loss. (Can you say Harry Potter?). But in 2011, the mothers seemed to have lost their luster. Contagion and Descendents are marked by moms who are wildly imperfect. Paltrow cheats on her husband while on her business trip and pays with her life. Clooney’s wife was cheating, too and bears the unexplained blame for her two daughters being so messed up. So, are we trending towards a more realistic depiction of unhappy wives? Or, are screenwriters getting adept at portraying the sensitive side of men? Having also just watched Beginners and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I could make a case for the latter. Both films offer lovely depictions of sensitive men coping tenderly with the deaths of their fathers.
If the trend is towards more realistic men and women — a good thing, right? — let’s be sure to give wayward wives a chance to either speak for themselves or make amends for their mistakes. Here’s to smart girls (like Shailene Woodley, the daughter in Descendents), messy marriages that work out, and more comedy at the expense of the grand circus of family life. This all leads to a shout out for Crazy Stupid Love, which had all of the above – a cheating Julianne Moore, Steve Carell as a bumbling Dad who manages to wake up his family dynamic, and a whip smart, funny daughter in Emma Stone. Oh, and did I mention Ryan Gosling fits into this melange, as well? Enough said.