When you’re living in a place that’s best known for palm trees and puka shells, it’s easy to get in the mind frame that life is easy and fun. For the man at the hub of The Descendants, island life is anything but pleasurable.

Honolulu lawyer Jack King (George Clooney) has never submitted to the Hawaiian lifestyle. As the most responsible member of a family directly related to the state’s royal lineage, he has chosen to keep a level head and live modestly rather than indulge in the wealth left to him by his ancestors. This attitude has never sat well with his wife (Patricia Hastie), but when she is critically injured in a boating accident and ends up in a coma, Jack starts to wonder if he should have been more flexible with her and their daughters (Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller). Upon learning of his spouse’s poor prognosis and her “do not resuscitate” order, his grief is quickly replaced by rage when he finds out she was seeing somebody else behind his back.

Clooney can play a nice guy with ease, but some of his best moments come when he’s pissed off. The popular politician with a secret in this year’s The Ides of March has nothing on cuckolded Jack, whose already complicated life is made even more stressful by the prospect of being a single parent. It doesn’t help that his girls are such a pair of smart-asses.

As cynical 17-year-old Alex, The Secret Life of an American Teenager actress Woodley shows kids can get in worse trouble than getting pregnant in high school, doing more with unkind words than most girls her age can with years of practice. Rather than getting all weepy — although she does cry with the best of them — she turns her anger with both her parents into a journey to help Dad find the other man. Matthew Lillard has one of his better roles as a realtor, who’s also cheating on his own wife (Judy Greer), and has more to do with Jack’s business than he knows, with both involved in a land deal that could change the future of Hawaiian isle of Kauai.

Hopping from island to island as he gets his wife’s affairs in order, Jack provides the audience with a gorgeous travelogue of the landscape, nicely captured by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. The verdant foliage and crystal ocean views are juxtaposed with a lot of family unpleasantness in this pineapple paradise. Besides dealing with his wife’s impending death, Jack also has to contend with dozens of cousins pressuring him to make them a lot of clams by signing away their family land. Director Alexander Payne’s knack for telling stories about people who are at a crossroads in life is ever-present here.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say he’s never been involved with a bad movie — he did have his name attached to the screenplay for I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry after all — but he has yet to direct a bad movie. His latest, co-adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, is right on track with his usual work, with all the sharp-tongued dialogue of Sideways, the dark humor of Election, and the emotional poignancy of About Schmidt. As Payne’s worked his way across the map from the Midwest setting of his debut Citizen Ruth, it’s good to see he’s kept it real. Who else could have a 10-year-old repeatedly chant the word “twat” and make it sound cute?

The Descendants is richly satisfying in its ability to let viewers connect with a family going through such a horrible situation and still get a barrel of laughs. As the Kings say “aloha” to the life they knew and “aloha” to a new one, we can be glad about one thing: at least this isn’t our family.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars

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