DVD •Alexander Payne directs finely-tuned stories of emotionally broken people from Paul Giamatti's wine-loving neurotic of "Sideways" to Jack Nicholson's drifting widower in "About Schmidt." In "The Descendants" (for which Payne and co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, adapting Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel, won an Oscar), the central figure is Matt King (George Clooney), a Hawaii lawyer whose family's big land deal is interrupted when his wife is put in a coma after a speedboat accident.
As "the backup parent," Matt tries to reconnect with his daughters, and is floored when his oldest, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), tells him Mom was cheating on him. The script finds the humor and heartbreak in Matt's situation, as he pursues his wife's lover (Matthew Lillard) and comes to grips with her imminent death. Great performances (including Judy Greer as Lillard's wife) and a sure sense of place make "The Descendants" a transcendent American movie.