Paradise, says the frazzled family man played by George Clooney in “The Descendants,” can go hang itself.
Of course, he doesn’t say “hang.” You wouldn’t either, if you had this guy’s troubles.
Clooney, ever the perfect hybrid of leading man and character actor, is splendid as a husband and father unprepared for the losses coming his way in Alexander Payne’s rich, bittersweet film.
The star plays Matt King, a real-estate lawyer, descendant of Hawaiian royalty and missionaries, and emotionally distant father of two troubled girls. A boating accident (cleverly suggested but not shown in the film’s opening seconds) leaves his wife in an irreversible coma and Matt with a shattered family.
The pull-the-plug decision is out of his hands -- Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie, vegetative for most of the film) signed a living will -- but Matt has another dilemma consuming him.
As the majority stakeholder in an ancestral trust, Matt has final say in the disposition of 25,000 acres of virgin Hawaiian land, a parcel of paradise that has developers and Matt’s fellow descendants already counting their fortunes.
Don’t be fooled, warns narrator Matt, by the casual attire of the cousins who by genetic luck alone will inherit this chunk of heaven on earth. “In Hawaii,” he says, “some of the most powerful people look like bums and stuntmen.”
With observations like that, folks in “The Descendants” ring as true as the wine snobs of Payne’s 2004 “Sideways.” Working from Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel, Payne sets the film’s early scenes in a typically overlooked Hawaii of city streets and suburban tracts.
This is a real place, says Matt, where cancer is no less fatal than anywhere else.
Payne toys with expectations in other ways, too. The standard weepie formula is dashed when daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), 17 and angry, tearfully and cruelly informs Matt that not-so-likeable mom was having an affair before the accident.
That revelation sets the film’s road trip in motion. Matt, Alexandra, the unknowing 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra’s stoner buddy Sid (Nick Krause) island hop in search of Elizabeth’s lover.
Matt ostensibly wants to invite him to bid her adieu -- an attempt at selflessness after years of negligence -- but even the dopey Sid (“a hundred miles from smart,” Matt says) senses something more primal in the need to put a face on betrayal.
As morose as it sounds, “The Descendants” is as funny as it is poignant, recalling “Terms of Endearment” in its easy shifts from laughter to the sterile ache of a hospital room. Payne’s script (co-written with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) is peppered with smart, telling jibes. “Alex is home from school,” Matt tells his unconscious wife. “Try to be nice.”
Poor Elizabeth. In a running joke, one character after another dissolves over her motionless body into lacerating rage. “I’m sorry we weren’t good enough for you” is all the niceness Alexandra can muster -- at least initially.
After the early surprises, “The Descendants” ambles into more predictable territory, dropping a step behind an audience that might be over-prepared for the oncoming catharsis.
The King family’s trajectory, Matt’s decision about that Edenic ancestral legacy, even the latent charms of the goofy Sid seem as inevitable, if completely earned, as Clooney’s awards-season tux.
“The Descendants,” from Fox Searchlight Pictures, is playing in New York and Los Angeles, and opens Friday across the country. Rating: ***
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(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)