If anything distinguishes Alexander Payne from other filmmakers of his generation, it’s in how thoroughly he develops his characters. Even when working with a densely packed narrative like his abortion satire CITIZEN RUTH, the characters stick with you longer than the (admittedly great) story does; it’s partially why he’s extracted career-best performances from Laura Dern, Reese Witherspoon and Virginia Madsen and it’s arguably what made a whisper-thin narrative like SIDEWAYS work.

Payne’s first feature since SIDEWAYS centers on another intriguing character in Matt King (George Clooney), a Hawaiian land baron. His extended family owns the last large parcel of undeveloped acreage on one of the state’s islands. The family wants to sell this land, and since Matt’s the trustee, he ultimately makes the final decision as to whom the buyer is. Initially, he’s not terribly concerned about the land’s fate, and the issue does seem a little flippant in light of the fact that his wife, Elizabeth lies a coma following a severe waterskiing accident.

The thing about Matt is he’s decidedly modest for a land baron, preferring to make his living as a lawyer rather than living off his ancestral wealth. Whether dealing with his two daughters or reeling from an unpleasant secret about his wife, he is also amiably flawed in that he doesn’t always have the right answers but he rarely comes off as a buffoon. Credit Payne’s incisive but nuanced screenplay (cowritten with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) but don’t underrate Clooney–although the man still emanates a fair amount of his patented movie-star charm, he’s rarely seemed this relatable or vulnerable (his fairly good work in UP IN THE AIR almost seems like a trial run in comparsion).

Actually, THE DESCENDANTS greatly benefits from a sustained, understated tone that is rare for most films dealing with death, infidelity and a vanishing way of life. Gently buoyed by a pleasantly drowsy Hawaiian guitar-soaked score, Payne’s even-keeled approach is perfectly in tune with the culture it documents. While it’s hard not marvelling at Hawaii’s natural beauty, one gets an astute sense of what it’s really like to live there.  A major accomplishment for Payne, THE DESCENDANTS is miles away from the wicked satire of his earlier films, but it feels just as personal.