In The Descendants, Matt King (George Clooney) at one point has this to say (in voiceover, for about 3,000% of the dialogue in the first half of the movie is in voiceover): "Somehow it feels natural to find a daughter of mine on a different island. My family seems exactly like an archipelago - all part of the same geographic expression but still islands - separate and alone, always drifting slowly apart." This is not a line that has any business being in a film that thinks so highly of its own truthfulness, but it's pretty much par for the course in a picture that telegraphs every emotional beat and holds the viewer's hand every step of the way, giving us the most sanitised and programmatic version of catharsis imaginable. It is a perfect movie for people who want to see things that are emotionally rigorous and challenging, but are desperately concerned that they might have to deal with characters who aren't filed into the "likable" or "hateable" piles within the first 15 seconds we've met them.

It's doubly upsetting that this awards-ready machined pablum could have come from Alexander Payne, who has made his entire career out of character studies of difficult, often totally unlikable characters, and finding the thing about them that makes them worthy of our consideration. In the eight years between 1996's Citizen Ruth and 2004's Sideways, he made four good-to-great features that found a perfect sweet spot between ironically mocking their protagonists and genuinely caring for them; the seven years since were punctuated only by his short contribution to Paris, je t'aime, the best of that film's segments and arguably the masterpiece of Payne's whole career. Since then, he has apparently forgotten entirely how to make a movie, although maybe part of it is that he couldn't survive the departure of his regular writing partner Jim Taylor (who stays on as producer), who is replaced with the relatively green Nat Faxon and Jim Rash to co-adapt Kaui Hart Hemmings's novel alongside Payne.

Whatever the case, The Descendants features as its lead a man with a horribly challenging decision to make: how is he going to dispose of his family's 35,000 acres of virgin Hawai'ian real estate. I am not going to go all class warfare on the movie or anything, but it takes quite a lot to put over the personal tragedy of a man of unimaginable luck and privilege, and it doesn't help that the movie seems wholly unaware that this might even be a difficulty. So anyway, Matt has that on his plate, and then his wife is injured in a boating accident and slips into a coma from which he learns, some weeks later, she will not be recovering. And if that wasn't enough, while he's trying to deal with his intractable, angry 17-year-old daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), she reveals the unwelcome news that this whole time, Elizabeth King has been cheating on her husband.

From here we get a customarily Paynesian travel story: Matt, Alex, and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), as well as Alex's intensely mellow boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) travel from here to there over the islands, first to inform all of Elizabeth's loved ones that the doctors are pulling the plug and it will only be a matter of days until she dies; eventually their path takes them as far as Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), the man she was having the affair with, though Matt is not looking to have a confrontation so much as offer, in a very strained way, his offer of forgiveness to the man who cuckolded him. Meanwhile, he learns to be a better father, but not in such a way that's actually uplifting, being as it is that he bonds with his eldest over their joint stalking of Speer.

As I say, every Alexander Payne movie involves some measure of looking down on his characters, but he always pulls up at the last second and saves his films from dabbling in true misanthropy. Until now - perversely enough, it's the director's first movie with a protagonist who is basically an all-round okay guy that is also his most truly nasty piece of work, and I think that's even because Matt King is so nice: since unlike the self-centered whine snob of Sideways or the vicious teacher of Election, we don't see any reason for him to be called on his shit, the film has no problems making villains out of the people who do call him on his shit, or otherwise cause him pain or inconvenience, and since this is true of virtually the entire case, The Descendants isn't hurting for people that it pretty much straight up hates. Especially Elizabeth - one of the big showstopping scenes comes when Matt screams and rants at her comatose form, and there's no sense at all that we're meant to find him even slightly wrong for doing it, not even seconds later when he censures Alex for doing the same thing. At the end (NOT MUCH OF A SPOILER ALERT) when he stands by her bed and weeps his good byes, it plays less like he understands that she is truly a decent person and more that he is demonstrating, as he has been all movie, what a noble martyr he can be.

The one thing that keeps The Descendants above water, and only just, is George Clooney. This isn't exactly the kind of character he usually plays (Matt is far more sullen and miserable than the typical Clooney starring role), but it still feels like something he could do in his sleep, and there's absolutely no arguing that this is his most accomplished performance. Still, it is something he could do in his sleep, and that is what makes him a movie star - the things that he does in his sleep are what he's best at and what makes him worth watching. And this too is part of what makes Matt so likable, but it's not so annoying to be forced to like him thus; the writing and the acting are doing basically the same thing, I guess, but the acting does it better.

Beyond Clooney, there's simply not much to recommend it: not the relentlessly joy-sapped tone (for a dark comedy-drama in the About Schmidt mold, this is a perfectly un-funny movie) that suggests more than all the rest of it that Payne has lost his sharp touch. The whole movie is so damn solemn - Phedon Papamichael's cinematography manages to keep from overly sentimentalizing Hawai'i (and for this DP, that alone is an achievement), but otherwise feel exhausted and totally uninteresting, and the pacing stretches into oblivion, particularly in the middle - and while I admire that the film wants to show a picture of tropical life as a place where people actually go about the business of their lives, and it's wonderful to see a return of the tiny adult slice-of-life pictures that were far more common before Payne took his protracted break from filmmaking they are now, The Descendants would be far more satisfying if it was actually good at those things. I do not refuse to hold out hope that this is just Payne re-learning how to make a movie, but that doesn't do much to make me feel better about the tepid and mean-spirited thing we have before us.