'The Descendants'

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Seven years after Sideways, Alexander Payne has made his best film yet.

Ostensibly a study of loss, this wonderfully nuanced look at a father and two daughters dealing with the imminent death of his wife and their mother turns the miraculous trick of being, possibly, even funnier than it is moving.  George Clooney is in very top form in a film that will connect with any audience looking for a genuine human story, meaning Fox Searchlight should be able to give this a very long ride through the holidays and well into the new year.

Director Alexander Payne (Sideways) has always impressed with talent for injecting his studies of flawed ordinary people with unexpected warmth and comedy, but never has his knack for mixing moods and modulating subtle emotions been more evident than in this adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings' 2007 novel. Skillfully scripted by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rush, the tale unfolds over about a week's time, during which many fundamentals about the life of Matthew King and his family are turned topsy-turvy.

An admittedly distant father, Matthew (Clooney) is blindsided by a dreadful speedboat accident that has left his wife, Elizabeth, in a coma. He's a successful real estate lawyer in Hawaii, but Matthew hasn't a clue how to deal with his sulky 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller), and when they go to fetch saucy 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley) from her boarding school on the Big Island, they are confronted by a drunken girl spouting obscenities.

Despite his shortcomings as a father -- and, very likely, a husband -- Matthew can't help but stir viewer sympathy. The monkey wrench in the already fraught situation turns up when Alex informs her clueless dad that his wife had been cheating on him. As he often does, Payne finds a way to augment the impact of a dramatic revelation with humor out of left field; in this case, he has Matthew put on sandals and go running to the home of his wife's best friend, his determined rush to learn the truth made giddily humorous simply by the sight of his awkward dash.

A major key to the film's success are the nuances, fluctuating attitudes, loaded looks and tonal inflections among the main characters; the ensemble work is terrific. Matthew's confrontation with the man who screwed his wife is made richer by a wonderful follow-up scene involving the man's wife, indelibly etched by Judy Greer.

But it's Clooney who carries it all with an underplayed, sometimes self-deprecating and exceptionally resonant performance. He's onscreen nearly all the time (and narrates as well) and makes it easy to spend nearly two hours with a man forced to carry more than his fair share of the weight of the world on his shoulders for a spell.

Similarly essential to the venture's success is Woodley, who transforms convincingly from a girl who is reflexively condescending toward her father to one who becomes his eager accomplice and staunchest defender. Miller and Nick Krause, who plays Alex's stoner boyfriend, are excellent as the other members of what becomes the inner circle, and Patti Hastie will, one hopes, one day have the opportunity to make a more expressive impression on the big screen than she does in the dramatically thankless but somehow still memorable role of the inert, bedridden Elizabeth (well, she does get a kissing scene with Clooney, even if her character can't feel it).

Release date Nov. 23 (Fox Searchlight)
Cast George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Amara Miller
Director Alexander Payne
Screenwriters Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash