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“Welcome to Paradise?”

Grade: A- (SEE IT)

NOT SINCE THE invention of the kitchen food-processor has a vegetable endured such abuse.  In Alexander Payne’s affecting new tragicomedy, “The Descendants,” an unfaithful thrill-seeker of wife named Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) lies comatosed in a Honolulu hospital while various family members stomp their feet and shout at her.  Even her lover’s wife (a mousy and marvelous Judy Greer) comes around, bearing flowers with seemingly good intentions, and soon rages against the dying woman.  The lasting notion of Payne’s drama is that Elizabeth is a blank screen upon which her family members project their worst ideas about her.  Because she never speaks, because she’s prematurely sent to what Hamlet famously called that “undiscovered country, from whose bourn/No traveler returns,” her own side of the story remains the great missing puzzle piece behind her infidelity and ensuing family fracture.

Elizabeth’s husband, Matt King, a real estate lawyer subtly played by George Clooney, has a long list of grievances, principally that their 17-year-old daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) spotted her with another man not long before the boating accident that put her in a persistent vegetative state.  A bikini’d Alex returns from rehab, angry and adolescent, and in a nod to “The Graduate,” sinks to the bottom of a leaf-strewn swimming pool upon hearing that her mom will soon be taken off life-support.  Left to fill Elizabeth’s shoes is a cuckolded Clooney who tells us in the film’s opening voice-over: “I’m the back-up parent, the understudy.” Going to the movies means that more often than not, Humpty-Dumpty families have to put themselves back together again – that’s what fiction means – but “The Descendants” is so sardonically real, so life-like, in its representation of modern families that the predictable reconciliation in the final reel doesn’t feel forced or fantastical.  It can be as quotidian and Friday-night as watching “The March of the Penguins” on the sofa while sharing ice cream as a family.

Based on his previous two knock-outs, “About Schmidt” and “Sideways,” Mr. Payne is a master of loco-description, bringing particular places (and all their eccentricities) to life. (This is the dramedy filmmaker, after all, who made an everyman out of the usually larger-than-life Jack Nicholson.)  Just as Nebraska and California wine-country were central to those earlier films, the lush landscape of Hawaii, particularly Kauai, is hardly backdrop in “The Descendants.”  The hibiscus patterns, beach-bums, and Tommy Bahamas are all there, but stripped of their far-off exoticism.  For once, Hawaii on screen is a place you don’t want to someday visit.  Clooney utters the film’s most powerful analogy: “A family is an archipelago, part of the same whole but drifting apart.”

Working from Payne’s (and Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s) of adaptation of a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the plot is devastatingly domestic: after Elizabeth’s accident, Matt has to lead a gaggle of children and friends toward coming to terms with her loss.  When daughter Alex informs him of the affair, he runs flat-footedly in loafers to a nearby house to demand the truth from Elizabeth’s closest friends.   In “The Descendants,” Clooney is buoyed by the best ensemble cast of the year:  as the flippant Alex, Ms. Woodley (“The Secret Life of the American Teenager”) is a revelation; so, too, is Robert Forster who, as Elizabeth’s doting father, appears in only two scenes and fills each with his wounded rage.  After a word of warning, he cold-cocks Alex’s teenage boyfriend, Sid, who, in a lesser film, would have remained a stoner stereotype but here instead shares a brief bit of dialogue with a sleepless Matt about his own grief.  It’s these realistic touches that make “The Descendants” hard, like family, to shake off.