Alexander Payne might have mellowed over the years, but he hasn't lost his edge. Since the mordant satire of his abortion black comedy Citizen Ruth (1996), he has arrived at his own rather complicated version of family values and reconciled himself to the appeal of feel-good resolutions. That despite a story involving a tragic accident, teenage drug and alcohol abuse, adultery, death, inheritance squabbles, and — the ultimate soul-destroying bane — a major real-estate transaction.
In part his success is due to one of the most satisfying ensemble casts of the year. George Clooney puts in what may be his best performance as Matt King, scion of a wealthy Hawaiian family that can trace its pedigree back to the 19th-century Princess Margaret Ke'alohilani, descendant of King Kamehameha, and bride of Matt's great, great, etc., grandfather, the haole lawyer Edward King. This distant, convention-defying union has left Matt not just with a mixed racial heritage and a deep bond to the land, but also with the trusteeship of thousands of virginal acres on the island of Kauai, a clan-owned property about to go up for sale.
But that's not really what's on Matt's mind right now. His free spirit wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is in a coma after a boating accident, and he must set aside his obsession with business to confront the shambles of his family. Left without maternal guidance, his 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) has been acting up, and his 17-year-old daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) has been drying out at boarding school. On an impulse Matt brings Alexandra back home and in a dramatically loaded scene discovers that part of the reason she's a mess is because she knows something about Elizabeth that Matt never suspected.
Shaken by this, Matt still must maintain a public face during the crisis, and Clooney conveys his torment with a tour de force of repressed and conflicting emotions: rage, grief, tenderness, and terror. Meanwhile, Alexandra gets her act together and takes charge of a family-bonding mission to get to the heart of Elizabeth's transgression. Here, Woodley establishes herself as a truly gifted actor, not only in depicting her character's transformation from wastrel to mensch but also in conveying the nuances of daughter-father and sister-sister relationships.
Sounds very melodramatic, and it sometimes is, but Payne has mastered the knack of balancing moods and tone, leavening complex emotional moments with sometimes downright goofy humor. After Matt gets the shocking news from Alexandra, his face twists with suppressed anguish. But then he slips on a pair of moccasins and runs, flip-flopping and sweating and in general dispensing with his dignity, to a neighbor's house for confirmation. The excruciating trauma lingers, but it's put in a more comprehensible and sympathetic context by the absurdity. For guaranteed comic relief, however, Alexandra's friend Sid (Nick Krause) is the go-to guy, offering uncensored and hilariously apt observations that destroy decorum, put things in perspective, and also earn him a black eye from Elizabeth's volatile father Scott (a terrific Robert Forster).
Given the blithe control he exhibits everywhere else, Payne's occasional lapses are hard to square. The first 10 minutes of the film totter with clunky exposition as Matt in voiceover prosaically explains most of the major plot points. And it seems everyone gets a shot at haranguing poor Elizabeth's inert, life-supported carcass with accusations of perfidy and protestations of love.