Clooney's character speaks from experience:
During the course of this deceptively relaxed and engaging movie, Clooney's Matt King grapples with death, betrayal, parental angst and personal responsibility. In other words, "The Descendants" is a full-blooded movie, not a travelogue.
But before you reach for your handkerchief or begin wringing your hands in grief, know that the tone of The Descendants is far from lugubrious. Payne manages the kind of neat trick that defines some of Hollywood's best work: The Descendants can be generously entertaining without scraping all the emotional meat of its bones.
Let's get the movie's bona fides out of the way: Yes, The Descendants likely will show up on Oscar's short list for best picture. Yes, Clooney probably will find himself among the nominees for best actor. Payne probably will win a best director nomination, as well as a nomination (along with his co-writers) for best-adapted screenplay. (Kaui Hart Hemmings wrote the novel on which the movie is based.)
There could be more Oscar nominations on tap for The Descendants, but you get the idea: The Descendants has been positioned to make a major splash as one of the year's best big-screen endeavors, and - before we proceed - let me assure you that I'm not going to pull a 180 and tell you to forget all the hype and pre-opening accolades. Some of them are well deserved.
Clooney plays Matt King, a successful real-estate lawyer who hasn't paid a great deal of attention to his wife or to his 17- and 10-year-old daughters. Of course, life is about to teach Matt a major lesson.
The trigger: Matt's wife is involved in a boating accident that puts her into a coma from which she has no chance of recovering. Not surprisingly, Matt's world turns upside down - both as a parent and as a husband. Matt also begins to discover that he may have had an entirely mistaken notion about the kind of life he'd been living.
The movie's trailer reveals way too much, but I won't say more about a screenplay in which Matt accumulates disasters large and small, even as we ignore his early-picture warning and are lulled into something like a state of Hawaiian ease.
Matt's woes extend beyond worry about his wife's medical condition. He's also the trustee for a magnificent parcel of his family's land in Kauai, unspoiled acreage that most of the relatives want to sell to a developer. They think they're doing the right thing because they favor a local developer over an outsider.
Thankfully, the heart of the story belongs to Clooney and to the actresses who play his daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller). Woodley, from TV's The Secret Life of the American Teenager, portrays a spiky, 17-year-old student. She's difficult, and, perhaps as part of that difficulty, insists that her boyfriend (Nick Krause) accompany her everywhere. Krause's Sid seems like a major dope - until he doesn't.
Despite the problems she presents, Matt increasingly relies on his older daughter. Woodely gives a complex, layered performance. She's playing a character who's not fully mature, but she's not a child, either. She's in that most awkward of categories: an almost adult.
Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer find themselves in major supporting roles, with Greer perhaps having the better showcase, particularly in a scene near the movie's end. Robert Forster makes a strong impression as Matt's embittered father-in-law.
A word or two about Clooney: Clooney is a first-rank star, and he can't check his stardom at the door when the cameras roll. But Clooney deserves major credit for putting aside some of his trademark cool. He's playing an emotionally rumpled guy who can be clueless, a man defined by what he doesn't know.
The Descendants might be a shade too easy, considering some of the issues it raises, and like many good movies, it may be receiving more praise than it deserves. If so, it's because Payne's movie soars above most mainstream entertainment, offering us something welcome and rare: movie characters behaving in ways that are touching, funny and sometimes even smart.