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The Descendants rises above petty family problems

George Clooney fishes for an Oscar with a lovely Hawaiian dramedy

The lush, hibiscus-filled Hawaiian setting of The Descendants seems to have mellowed director Alexander Payne. True, the caustic filmmaker behind such middle-American satires as Election and About Schmidt initially undermines the idea of the 50th state as an earthly paradise. Early images show Honolulu to be encumbered with as many skyscrapers, traffic jams, and homeless people as downtown Atlanta. But The Descendants would rather elicit tears than draw blood and succumbs to a generosity of spirit, just as the camera eventually swoons over the idyllic forests and endless beaches.

George Clooney plays Matt King, who sees himself as "the back-up parent" to his daughters. When a boating accident puts his wife in a coma, Matt must take more responsibility in his daughters' lives. Against a backdrop of potential tragedy, Matt struggles to connect with teenage Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), both of whom openly defy their dad's idea of propriety. The Descendants' first hour relies heavily on broad jokes involving Alexandra's dimwitted boyfriend (Nick Krause) and Scottie swearing and flipping the bird.

When Matt learns a secret about his wife, he involves his daughters in a half-baked investigation into her hidden life. As the trustee of his extended family, which dates back to 19th-century Hawaiian colonists, Matt must also decide the fate of 25,000 acres of undeveloped land. Not unlike Up in the Air, The Descendants' script tends to rely on pat ideas while giving Clooney all the speeches a Best Actor Oscar contender could want: wounded anger, heartfelt tenderness, slow resolve to stand on principle, etc. Nevertheless, Clooney captures Matt's vulnerability as a once-complacent man who rediscovers his capacity for emotional depth.

Clooney also shows an admirable willingness to run like an uncoordinated goofball in the name of a laugh. Sometimes, it's like Matt doesn't even realize he looks like George Clooney. The Descendants hits its stride in its second half, though, when it dispenses with the forced jokes and finds the emotional truths in painful situations. As a fraying married couple, Judy Greer and Matthew Lillard give strikingly raw, affecting performances with just a little screen time, while Woodley could be the second coming of Natalie Portman. The characters in The Descendants frequently want to get even or inflict their sorrows on other people, but Payne concludes that showing mercy helps everyone in the long run.