In Alexander Payne's latest telegram from the damaged psyche of the American middle-class man, perfectly unmarried George Clooney plays an imperfectly married rich guy, Matt King, about to leave the well-off to join the ranks of Hawaii's version of the 1 percent. This is as upper-middle-class as Hollywood gets, even without the poor timing of its Occupy Wall Street moment. But the price of King's admission to uninterrupted upward mobility is steep.
His wife, injured off-camera before we meet her family, isn't waking from her coma. And she was having an affair, something her elder daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, the core of the movie and fully up to the task), tells King with the mixture of satisfaction and nausea available only to teenagers. So, as in Payne's Sideways and About Schmidt, the male at the story's center must take to the road — and encounter a succession of oddly wise and wisely odd capital-C characters — in order to comprehend the changes at hand.
The Descendants is an early backlash contender among awards-season movies, with a few complaints already lodged against casting golden Clooney as another Payne loser. Shrunken by high-waisted pants and grief-pinched shoulder blades, he's still more handsome and more ingratiating than hall-of-fame schnook Paul Giamatti and combed-over Jack Nicholson. But King's easy genetic victories — an attractive man from a landed family — are at the center of Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel (which Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have smartly and faithfully adapted), and confusing Clooney with King misses the point. It also sets aside a graceful and complex performance, another in his gallery of men with more knowledge than power (think Syriana, Michael Clayton and Up in the Air).
In the movies, grief must be effortful — it should look hard but not impossible. Here, the impending loss of wife and mother is enacted more by the daughters (Amara Miller is Woodley's equal as the younger girl) and the dying woman's parents (Robert Forster is the Machete of fathers-in-law) than by Clooney. His come-apart is discreet, shot from above and behind, an eavesdropped moment rather than the frontal displays deployed by the other actors. This being a Payne movie, that's no cheat. The director's nearly silent coda plays like a family version of the wordless taxi ride that ends Michael Clayton — with a warmth that's fully earned.