It's George Clooney's voice-over at the opening of The Descendants - offering a quick survey of the island state of Hawaii, its people (yes, there are homeless), its sun-burnished landscapes, its tourism industry, its rich, but not quite seamless culture.
And it's Clooney's voice - as Matt King, a real estate lawyer with a family line going back to Hawaii's earliest colonial days - whose gentle rumble guides us through Alexander Payne's transcendent tragicomedy. Of course, we see the actor's face, and plenty of him: surprised, angry, sad, vulnerable, loving, foolish, comically discombobulated. But there's something about Clooney's timbre, his quiet, kicked-back intonations, that lead us to the heart of this character. Like the music on the soundtrack - wonderful slack-key guitar from the great Gabby Pahinui and other Aloha State pickers - Clooney's voice reflects the rhythms of the life here, its joys and its sorrows, for this man whose whole world is being upended.
Matt is the self-professed "backup parent," a workaholic dad who has let his wife do most of the nurturing for their two girls. But now that wife Elizabeth is in a hospital bed, in a coma - caused by a boating accident off the shores of Waikiki - he has to go it alone with his daughters: Scottie (Amara Miller), a testy 10-year-old, and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), a 17-year-old who has been shipped off to boarding school. In crisis mode, Matt heads there to bring his daughter home, and finds her drunk, wobbling giddily beneath a night sky. The trouble is just starting.
Payne, the director of Sideways and About Schmidt, is a master of telling stories that can be ridiculously funny and deeply moving (often in the same breath), tracking his protagonists as they wrestle with unexpected dilemmas - and with dilemmas of their own making. His films are populated by the messed-up, the neurotic. The Descendants' screenplay, an adaptation of the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, is perhaps the most rewarding of Payne's efforts. (Along with Payne, writing credits go to Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.) It's not only the way the filmmaker draws the stormy relations between Matt and Alexandra, and Matt and Scottie, and Alexandra and Scottie. It is also that Payne introduces a circle of friends and family, and shows us the connections, and conflicts, in play. And he makes it all feel lived-in, real.