George Clooney, who may be the closest thing we now have to a Cary Grant, seems of late to be reversing Grant's career trajectory. While Grant went from pratfalling acrobat to ironically self-aware sex symbol, Clooney has recently made room in his usual Teflon-suave scoundrel persona for roles that place him more as a bruised emotional clown.

One could trace this arc all the way back to his shellacked, preening fool in 2000's Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, but it is another Coen brothers movie, 2008's Burn After Reading, that reveals a man whom the old alpha-male hallmarks have failed miserably. By Up in the Air, he suspects that his own game is rigged against him. And in The Descendants, the newest film from director Alexander Payne (Sideways), he downright knows he's lost.

Clooney puts in a nuanced, wincing performance as the Dickensianly named Matt King, a workaholic real-estate lawyer and haole heir of Hawaiian royalty, who finds himself suddenly at sea when his wife of many years is knocked into a terminal coma by a high-speed motorboating accident. Not only does he not know how to relate to his two daughters—stock indie-quirky 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and acid-tongued boarding-school teen Alex (Shailene Woodley, of The Secret Life of the American Teenager)—but he is left to discover that his lonely, stay-at-home wife had fallen in love with another man behind his back.

Just as Hawaii is depicted as a somewhat banal and failed paradise, the age-old, narcissistic dream of the successful family man is cored here into paper-thin fragility. King is portrayed as a charismatic Hollywood version of the American male Zeitgeist: betrayed, anemic, obliviously isolated in a world of women. Whatever faults King had in his marriage and family life, they are not on display, and so he is a likable Clooney-shaped cipher, bewildered and mostly bereft of will. He instead shambles through a meandering script that uses the entire unreasonable world as a continual low-stakes instigation to eccentric pathos or comedy: sassy daughters and their obnoxious friends, an ogreish father-in-law, money-grubbing cousins, and a downright insulting example of a cuckolder (played by Matthew Lillard at his most sniveling).

Clooney makes the most of his underwritten role—it is a comedic wonder to watch him lope awkwardly in flip-flops, or register his polite, pride-sucking pain over and over—but it is difficult nonetheless for the viewer to invest emotionally in the film, despite its easy charisma. (It is especially difficult to invest in a paperweight of a subplot involving a tract of unsullied ancestral land.)

There is one exception to this vacancy at the center of the picture, however: Clooney and Woodley have a wonderfully affecting rapport that evolves throughout the movie into a portrait of father-daughterhood that feels genuine, flawed and unsaccharine. It is this relationship that descends penumbrously over the closing sequence so that the simple gesture of an ice-cream cup changing hands is enough to evoke a warm rush of sentiment that the rest of the film does little to deserve. It also points tragically to the movie that this might have been, and almost was. R. 


SEE IT: The Descendants opens Wednesday, Nov. 23, at Clackamas, Bridgeport and Fox Tower.