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Monday, March 5, 2012

The Rule Against Perpetuities in Film

     Matt King, the main character (played by George Clooney) in The Descendants, is forced to engage in the parenting of his two difficult daughters when his wife is seriously injured and left lying in a coma. King is a workaholic lawyer whose idea of relaxing is to summarize depositions. His anxiety as a parent is complicated when he learns that his wife was having an affair with a local real estate broker. A second plot thread involves King's position as sole trustee of a family trust that owns 2500 acres of prime Hawaiian real estate. Two developers have offered hundreds of millions of dollars for the land, and King alone will decide whether he and his haole (but with the distant blood of Hawaiian royalty) relatives will achieve instant wealth or whether they will preserve the natural beauty of this property.
      Much of the pressure bearing on King comes from the statute of perpetuities about to rear its ugly head. Gratefully, the director makes no attempt to explain the rule or its ramifications. Rather, the rule is simply presented as a temporal deadline dictating that a choice must be made. Law students and lawyers can accept this lack of explanation as they have long joked about the incomprehensibility of the rule against perpetuties while hoping they never confront it in their practices.
     This is not the first time the rule against perpetuities has been an important plot twist in a mainstream movie. In Body Heat the lawyer in the movie, Ned Racine (William Hurt), drafts a will intentionally violating the rule against perpetuities in a plot to allow his lover to inherit the estate of her wealthy husband. Critics have noted that the movie misstates the actual consequences of the will. This is quibbling, though, as the rule against perpetuities, best known for its conceptual murkiness, has proven to be an effective plot mechanism. Detailed exposition of the rule would do little to advance the drama of the movie.