Marooned On Clooney’s Island

It’s hard to imagine George Clooney as the working class man. For one, he’s the spitting image of the leading man — tailored suit, arm-candy, pearly whites and all — but, more importantly, he acts like one. His role as a charming and emotionally-detached businessman in 2009’s “Up In the Air” fits him like a glove, allowing the actor to play with his own cool persona rather than attempt to create someone different (and probably less interesting).

Which is why it’s initially hard to imagine the eternal bachelor as one of Alexander Payne’s lonely grumps in the family drama “The Descendants.” Payne’s films (“About Schmidt,” “Sideways”) are about men forced to confront a lifetime of regret. Never younger than middle age, these men spend most of their respective films dealing with the recent loss of a wife (through either death or divorce) and the ineptitude they’ve earned with age.

“The Descendants” is no different. Clooney plays workaholic Honolulu lawyer Matt King, the self-proclaimed “back-up parent” to two daughters — sassy 10 year old Scottie (Amara Miller, with the award for biggest pout of the year) and acerbic 17 year old Alexandria (Shailene Woodley) — who has to learn to take center stage when his wife Elizabeth gets into a water skiing accident that puts her in a coma.

At the same time, King’s got a big decision to make. His great-great-grandmother was a Hawaiian princess who married a white banker and left her descendants a fat chunk of pristine island real estate.

As the primary beneficiary of the land, King must choose whether to sell the land to developers or keep it untouched.

Then, as he finally seems to get it together, he gets a double dose of bad news: His wife will never wake from her coma, and she was cheating on him before her accident — a piece of news which sets King and his family on an island-hopping trip to find his wife’s lover.

It almost sounds like the recipe for a tearjerker of a Lifetime movie, but Payne is no sentimentalist. The script — an adaptation of a 2009 novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, co-written by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash — is rife with dry humor. The sad is always balanced with the funny, as if the tragedies of life have a peculiar kind of comedy to them. Even the most emotional moments — King yelling at his wife’s unconscious body in the hospital — bring the kind of laughs that sting and linger long past the initial scene.

And the actors nail the tragi-comedy. Clooney is surprisingly convincing as the sad sack father, giving the kind of emotionally raw performance you’d never expect from the red carpet silver fox. The kids are just as committed too — Woodley (TV’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager”), in particular, gives a performance that stands up to Clooney’s star power.

But what’s made Payne’s other films such cutthroat, hilarious gems is the fact that his characters are total assholes. Jack Nicholson’s widower in “About Schmidt” is seriously unpleasant, while the two friends in “Sideways” are selfish jerks. But here, even the neglectful husband and unfaithful wife seem like good people thrown into terrible situations.

“The Descendants” is then the sweetest we’ve ever seen Payne — and a refreshing development for the director. Too bad he works better with the overpowering taste of the sour.