'The Descendants' and the Diabolical Allure of the Tragicomedy

George Clooney and Shailene Woodley in The Descendants/Photo: Merie/Fox Searchlight
George Clooney and Shailene Woodley in The Descendants/Photo: Merie/Fox Searchlight

Could anything be more entertaining than watching George Clooney suffer the trials of Job in "The Descendants"? Adapted from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the film follows a lonely widower (Clooney) as he turns over horrible family secrets in the wake of his wife's accidental death. So why are we laughing?

The art of mingling comedy with tragedy is as old as storytelling itself, but the rise of broadcast media in the twentieth century resulted in a vast cultural effort in simplification, breaking down complex narratives to their basic elements in hopes of appealing to the widest possible audience -- as Marshall McLuhan observed, the constraints of the medium will always ultimately determine what will be said, and how. Behold the birth of the mainstream, in which a comedy was a comedy, an adventure story was an adventure story, and the two need not necessarily intersect, because there was always another program coming up next. Filmmakers who could make you both laugh and cry were regarded as auteurs; the great genre-busters  of this age were typically movies adapted from novels and theatrical productions, realms where writers and artists could count on greater attention spans from their audiences and had more creative freedom to plumb the depths of human emotion. Hence the sensational gut-twisting humor of "The Lion in Winter" or "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." The popular success of films such as these gave a new generation of budding screenwriters (Robert Altman springs to mind) permission to dip their funniest jokes in poison and then aim for the throat.

Decades later, our diverse galaxy of media options  (we're spoiled rotten by our ancestors' three-channel standards) have broadened mainstream tastes immensely, to the point where few question the appeal of TV shows like "Weeds" or "Breaking Bad," in which white-knuckle suspense is equally likely to be defused by a laugh or a gunshot. "Mad Men" fans will never forget the giddy whiplash they felt during one of the series' funniest moments, which just happened to revolve around a gruesome lawnmower accident. Suffice to say, tastes in television have changed.

As for movies, the darkest and most uncomfortable humor still frequently arrives in the form of  book and play adaptations -- in addition to "The Descendants," this week also brings us "Another Happy Day," both of them blistering exorcisms of family demons, richly laden with wisecracks. But by now the tragicomedy is such a well-established subgenre that screenwriters hardly need wait for inspiration. Darren Aronofsky has made some of the bleakest films of our time, but they are leavened with transcendent moments of  silliness -- anyone remember Sara Goldfarb's botched dye-job? Or see Todd Solondz, whose "Welcome to the Dollhouse" has become synonymous with the hilarious agony of middle school. And don't forget: Lars Von Trier has built his entire career on forming sadomasochistic relationships with his audiences (and his lead actresses), time and again reaching out with the cinematic equivalent of a playful tickle followed by a hard slap.

The fact that any of these films still has the power to shock us indicates that there's still ground to be broken in the widening of mainstream culture, still pressure points that we're afraid to let anyone touch. As tempting as it may be to long for (or attempt to re-create) the pleasures of a "simpler" time, writers and artists will continue to expand their palettes and they're counting on the rest of us to keep up. Don't worry, the way forward may be darker than we ever could have predicted -- but it's much funnier.