Director Alexander Payne returns to the big screen (after an almost eight-year absence) with a somewhat unexpectedly gentle comedy-drama which is free from the biting satire and humorous cynicism which characterised his earlier work, and offers his most heart-felt feature to date.

George Clooney is Matt King, a work-obsessed lawyer from a prominent and successful Hawaiian lineage. He’s in the middle of thrashing out a deal which will see himself and his extended family make a substantial profit from the acres of natural land they own (during a fun scene early on, King is almost swallowed up by a sea of loose-fitting Hawaiian shirts donned by his vast amount of cousins). Having let the life outside of work with his family life slide, he’s suddenly forced to take the reins when his wife suffers a life-threatening accident whilst out water skiing with friends.

When her already fragile conditions worsens, King is forced to make some stern and unenviable life decisions, and he scoops up his unruly ten year-old daughter and her rebellious elder teenage sister (who insists on dragging along her dumb male surfer friend), taking them along on a trip with the intention of finding some emotional closure and possibly confronting his wife’s lover who was unbeknownst to him before the incident.

With an admittedly syrupy-sounding premise which could have easily descended into an unappealing Hollywood sludge-fest in the hands of a lesser talent, under the guidance of Payne (who was originally slated to produce only) it results in a sincere, moving and emotionally-rich journey. Part of the credit must go to novelist Kaui Hart Hemmings (whose book the film is based upon) but it’s the director’s insistence on finding the sentiment through the characters (and the beautifully understated performances he’s able to elicit from his actors) which really makes the material stand out and resonate with the audience.

This isn’t to say its smooth sailing all the way, and the film runs into a minor problem early on due, ironically, to Payne’s use of the same storytelling device which made his earlier work so memorable. Clooney’s voice-over (which is prominent for the first 10 minutes or so) is a big misstep by the director. Where in Election and About Schmidt it served as a way of enhancing the characters and revealing additional layers and nuances, here it feels unnecessary and superfluous, working only as exposition and little else. Sideways didn’t require it and there’s no need for it here. Fortunately, it’s a small blemish and it certainly isn’t enough to torpedo the film.

Talk of Clooney receiving plaudits for his work here is completely justified, and similar to colleague and friend Brad Pitt, he’s a performer who has managed to evolve and grow as the years go on. Coming to terms with this massive upheaval in his life, and coping with being out of touch parentally, there’s a sadness and vulnerability to the actor which is easy to empathise with, and the one brief moment where he pulls from his bag of actor-ly tricks, bringing that bug-eyed mugging to the forefront (you’ll be able to instantly recognise where it occurs), stands out amongst his otherwise grounded and sterling work.

It doesn’t hurt that Clooney is supported by a truly terrific supporting cast either, particularly the young actresses who play his daughters (Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley). Character actor Robert Forster also shines as King’s brash and aggravated father-in-law, while Scream-man and long-time AWOL actor Matthew Lillard crops up in a pivotal part later on in proceedings, ensuring that his name will almost certainly find itself on casting agent’s lists after a long absence.

If King’s actions towards the end of the film are a tad predictable, his choices come from more of an altruistic place rather than revenge, and like that inebriated duo on their indulgent road trip through Santa Ynez Valley wine country, even with their inherent flaws, Payne’s characters manage to remain resolutely appealing. The leisurely and unhurried narrative glides by whilst you’re fully emerged in the world and lush surroundings King and his family inhabit, and the director and DP Phedon Papamichael manage to make it incredibly alluring without ever resorting to a typical tourist-y interpretation of the exotic locale. The film’s gorgeous and fitting soundtrack (comprised exclusively of work from Hawaiian artists) also helps to establish a warmth and inviting atmosphere.

The star power of Clooney and subject matter will undoubtedly draw a number of cinemagoers who usually lap up the kind of saccharine-tinged work which The Descendants successfully negates, but this is only a good thing as what’s in store for them is an attentive and intelligent drama – a rarity in modern US mainstream cinema.

Let’s hope there isn’t as long a time gap again for Payne to discover similarly engaging material which will ignite his directorial interests.