1. "The Descendants" is so simple and straightforward that you almost don't notice how much it's trying to do, how ambitious it really is. It's a family drama. It's a heartbreaking tearjerker. It's a character study. It's a populist anti-corporate polemic. It's a rumination on the lasting (and sometimes ruinous) bonds of family, and the obligations we have, or don't have, to those who came before us. And it's all of these things in the guise of a lighthearted comedy. It doesn't entirely succeed at all of those things, and all told, the movie eventually stops doing much of anything funny at all. But to see a film shoot for the fences while still remaining grounded in an adult reality is sort of amazing, an achievement all by itself. "The Descendants" isn't perfect, but you'll probably see a lot of your life in it, and it'll probably make you cry.
2. George Clooney, in a fully realized and refreshingly buckled-down performance, plays Matt King, a Hawaiian man whose primary job is to run the trust of his extended family's patch of land, a gorgeous Kauai beachfront that his vast number of cousins want him to sell to a hotel consortium. He has put so much work into this "job" -- a discrepancy the movie never quite resolves; what has he been so busy doing for the last decade, exactly? -- that he has drifted away from his wife and his two daughters, becoming what he calls "the backup parent." This all dissolves, though, when his wife is critically injured in a boating accident, and all the strains and responsibilities of his life, strains and responsibilities he'd been quietly and almost imperceptibly skirting, come crashing down on him at once. And when he discovers that his wife had a secret life of her own, Matt has to figure out everything, all at once, with everyone watching, staring and wanting more.
3. The movie doesn't hit the right tone at first. We spend way too much time setting up the story, even tossing in some Clooney expository narration that the movie drops just as soon as it brings it up. The movie also plays a little more broadly early on, like it's trying to win you over, like it's trying to get you on its side before it drops the heavy business later on. (Much of this is personified by the film's worst character, Sid, a lunkheaded male companion of Matt's daughter, who is supposed to be a comic combination of Thomas Hayden Church's character in "Sideways" and Steve Holt from "Arrested Development," but isn't nearly charismatic or funny enough to approach either. (He's sort of the film's Poochie; you keep waiting for him to die on the way back to his home planet.) The movie, smartly, dispatches with Sid and the more conventional elements halfway through and becomes something quite different: a modern, almost dirge-like, meditation on loss, on family, on what it means to be a parent and what it means to be a productive, meaningful member of society. What it means, essentially, to try to figure out what will make the world better, rather than worse, and the ramifications of those decisions. The movie sneaks up on you, letting you in through Clooney's understated, completely believable performance, and then knocking you over when you're least expecting it. It's quite a trick: "The Descendants" is basically a philosophical treatise on grief and morality, in a Hawaiian shirt.
4. But this makes "The Descendants" feel like some sort of homework assignment, or, worse, a total drag. It's far too whimsical about humanity, and far too entertaining, to ever overdo it. What director Alexander Payne, at last back with his first film in seven years, is so skilled at are those small moments that feel lived in, heartbreaking and staggeringly authentic, whether it involves a parent saying goodbye to his daughter as she prepares to pass on, or a scorned wife trying to keep her family together while grieving her own losses, or a daughter who couldn't stand living with her mother but has no idea how she'll survive once she's gone. This last scene is dramatized in a shattering scene in which the daughter, played wonderfully by newcomer Shailene Woodley, dives underwater and screams so her father won't see her. The scene bowls you over and marks a turning point for the film; the more it focuses on the nuclear King family, the more it finds its stride. So much of this is due to Clooney, whose Matt is, all told, a pretty normal guy, and screwed up in the same way all normal guys are screwed up. Clooney gives King a real dignity while never once seeming anything other than lost ... yet still trying, dammit. It's a mammoth performance.
5. The film culminates -- a slight spoiler alert here -- in a hospital sequence in which all the main characters gathers to say their goodbyes, on one hand, but mostly to begin the next stages of their own lives, with what they've learned up to that point and how that's gonna help them moving forward. That sounds awfully mawkish, but it isn't, because Payne (and therefore we) is so invested in these characters that there isn't a second when it doesn't feel earned and deserved. (The movie is darned-near stolen by Judy Greer, in a small role I won't reveal here.) This is a truthful, warm-hearted, deeply moving film about loss, about death, about legacies and, yeah, family. And it finishes off with the most perfect final image I've seen all year. "The Descendants" is far from perfect, but, really, what family is?