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.

And then Matt discovers something about his wife's life - a jolting revelation, in fact - and becomes a kind of hapless but determined sleuth, bent on getting to the truth, trying to make sense of who he and Elizabeth were. Matt embarks on this mission with his daughters in tow. And he reluctantly takes Sid (Nick Krause), Alexandra's stoner boyfriend, along, too.

Clooney has never been better, subtler, more deeply rooted in a performance than he is in The Descendants. And he's funny, too: This isn't your typical Clooney hunk; Matt is a bit of a schlub, and to see him running down the road, gasping, or ducking behind walls to avoid detection, is to see a great physical comedian.

The two actresses playing Matt's kids - a newcomer in Miller, a savvy professional in Woodley - work intuitively, naturally, no wrong notes struck. Krause gets to be the goofball, the comic relief, but there's more to his Sid, much more. A scene in which Matt and Sid finally talk, man-to-man, and Matt realizes his daughter's boyfriend isn't just a doofus - he isn't that at all - is full of tender revelation. It's a priceless moment.

Judy Greer, as a wife and mother Matt first encounters on a Kauai beach, is only one among many in a standout, and surprising, supporting cast: Beau Bridges, as a mellow cousin of Matt's; Robert Forster as Matt's straightbacked father-in-law, a former military man; and Rob Huebel and Mary Birdsong as neighbors close to Matt, but closer still to Matt's wife.

The Descendants isn't only about these people - it's about the place they live, the land and sea all around them. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who shot Payne's Sideways, captures the lush exoticism of the islands, but also the everyday energy of Honolulu, the comfortable community of houses, marinas, and beachside eateries that Matt and his clan inhabit.

The Descendants is a story about discovery and self-discovery, about being responsible to one's family - but also being responsible to the place that a family comes from, the ground we walk on, the earth.