- - Thursday, November 17, 2011

Director Alexander Payne (“Election,” “About Schmidt,” “Sideways”) is a master of capturing unmoored, neurotic men in moments of decision. His films are sly, novelistic and nuanced, and though they are often buoyed along by humor, they are not comedies. There is a general inwardness and melancholia to Mr. Payne’s work that is belied by the hilarity of specific moments.

Visually, Mr. Payne is obsessed with the mundane and the transitional. His color palette tends toward the flat and muted, and he has a knack for positioning his characters in undignified, bland interiors, making them struggle for every ounce of respect they get from each other and from the audience. “The Descendants,” which is set in Hawaii, barely taps into the archipelago’s natural beauty, except occasionally as an idealized vision of primeval innocence that contrasts with the materialism and cynicism of the people who inhabit it.

George Clooney plays Matt King, the scion of an old Hawaiian family that is land rich and cash poor. They own an undeveloped parcel of land on the island of Kauai that must be sold before the family trust expires in seven years, and bids are ranging into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Matt is a lawyer on Honolulu, and despite his family’s wealth, he makes it a point of pride that he lives within the limits of the income from his law practice. He’s also a bit of an absentee father to his two daughters — the second-string parent who gets called in to handle things when his wife is unavailable. As the movie opens, his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) lies in a hospital bed, grievously injured in a boating accident — her role in the movie is as a comatose patient whose silent suffering is a backdrop to Matt’s efforts to keep his family together while attending to the details of the land sale.

What emerges is an intense and gratifyingly messy story that puts Matt’s values about family, loyalty and love to the test. When he gets the word that his wife won’t recover, he fetches his troubled older daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) from her pricey private school to help look after 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller). Alexandra’s hostility toward her mother masks a family secret that she is ultimately forced to share with her father. While this reveal comes fairly early on in the movie, and it animates the plot, it’s probably better left unspoiled in a review.

Mr. Clooney delivers the performance of his career. He sheds the easy cool of his “Ocean’s ” persona and the raw cynicism of the 2007 tour-de-force “Michael Clayton.” Instead, he fills out the contours of Matt King with subtlety and care, collapsing the emotional distance between viewer and character.

“The Descendants” is a tender, affecting and surprising look at a family in crisis, and it’s the kind of movie that should appeal to grown-up audiences looking for a good story that is well told.

★★★½ (out of four)

TITLE: “The Descendants”

CREDITS: Directed by Alexander Payne. Written by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings

RATING: R for profanity, drug references, sexual themes

RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes

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