'The Descendants" opens with a shot of a speedboating blonde smiling as turquoise Hawaiian waves break behind her. The next time we see her, she's hospitalized after an accident, encircled by life-support gear and sorrowful family members wearing brash floral prints. It's more than a cheap visual joke. That awkward hybrid of anguish, bucolic scenery and luau cheer gives director Alexander Payne's dramedy an air of befuddling, lifelike instability. Every twist in this sensitive, emotionally satisfying movie is as slippery and urgent as a goldfish tipped out of its tank. It's life being sad, beautiful and dumb all in the same breath.
The coma victim is Elizabeth, the wife of Matt King (George Clooney), a diligent Honolulu lawyer who chooses to eat lunch at his office desk rather than stroll beneath the palms. He's rocked by Elizabeth's impending death. Not only is he losing his love, now he must step up to the duties he delegated for years as "backup parent" to grade-schooler Scottie (Amara Miller) and high-school hellion Alexandra (Shailene Woodley).
Matt's predicament doesn't end there. The revelation that Elizabeth was having an affair and wanted a divorce complicates his grieving process. He wants revenge. No, he wants reconciliation. Wait, he really wants ... well, he's confused himself. With Alexandra egging him on, he sets out to find his wife's lover. It's a dumb, adolescent plan. Ironically, it bonds the family.
Clooney is appealingly cast against type here. Matt doesn't have Clooney's effortless charm, losing every test of wills with a female throughout the movie. As Matt digs into Elizabeth's tangled secret life, Clooney offers an assured, multidimensional performance, nailing both the deathbed remorse and the physical comedy. His clumsy trot as he races to a neighbor's house while wearing boat shoes is pure loose-limbed hilarity. Later he condenses years of a relationship into a single, sudden tear. His softspoken confrontation with his wife's lover is a sonata of vocal modulation.
There's an overload of story in the agreeably ramshackle script. A subplot about real estate that could make King and his extended family filthy rich fantails into the adultery storyline. Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer play a married couple entangled in Elizabeth's infidelity. The way in which it slowly dawns on each of them why Matt drops by to visit them is a master class in how much actors can convey without dialogue. They are fully, breathtakingly alive at every instant. As Elizabeth's doting, embittered father, Robert Forster has two monologues that are quietly electrifying, deeply insightful of the way parents put their children on a pedestal with the best of intentions, and no recognition of the possible consequences.
There's nothing as sour as unearned sweetness, and Payne avoids the mawkish moments you expect. The tentative happy ending has Matt and the kids at home on the sofa watching "March of the Penguins." But listen to the scenario honey-voiced Morgan Freeman describes, an ever-changing world where over time tropical isles turn frigid. A volatile, complicated place where families need to share a couch and a comforter and snuggle in tight.