Screenwriter-director Alexander Payne is a master of the cinematic moment.

In his most entertaining and critically-acclaimed films, seemingly normal persons exhibit abnormal behavior, often triggered by an event, long-neglected or overlooked, unfulfilled deep-seated needs and desires, or undiagnosed and dormant phobias.

In "Sideways" (2004), Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church get into all kinds of shenanigans in their search for the perfect cabernet in California wine country.

In "About Schmidt" (2002), Jack Nicholson travels to his estranged daughter's wedding.

In "Election" (1999), Reese Witherspoon runs for class president when teacher Matthew Broderick intervenes.

In "The Descendants," Payne's latest slice-of-life mini-opus, George Clooney plays Matt King, a mega-rich Hawaiian land owner who hops from Oahu to Kauai where 25,000 acres of his family's ancestral land trust are to be sold for development.

Do you see a pattern here?

Payne, born Alexander Constantine Papadopoulos in Omaha, Neb., is making nothing less than contemporary cinematic odysseys of the heart and mind. When it comes to cinema, Payne is the King of Pain.

What lifts the material in "The Descendants" above soap opera sentiments and romantic comedy cliches are Payne's carefully-wrought screenplays, filed with trenchant dialogue ("What is it that makes the women in my life destroy themselves?"); his careful and considerate filming of scenes, allowing the actors and emotions space and depth; and his use of dramatic plot elements, bringing his characters' dilemmas and problems into sharp focus.

As a workaholic attorney, Matt King (George Clooney) is ruminative, nervous and inner-directed. His wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is on her deathbed, following a boating accident that has put her into a coma.

King learns from his teen-age daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, of TV's "The Secret Life of the American Teenager," "Crossing Jordan" and the "O.C."), that his wife was having an affair.

King has his hands full dealing with Alexandra's seething anger and sense of betrayal toward her mother, as well as his out-of-control pre-teen daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller, in her acting debut), who seems on her way to becoming a troubled teen.

Along the way, Clooney confronts his father-in-law, Scott Thorson (Robert Forster); Alexandra's teen male friend, Sid (Nick Krause); his wife's lover, Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard); Brian's wife, Julie Speer (Judy Greer); and Cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges) in his own personal Pearl Harbor.

Payne co-wrote the screenplay with actors Nat Faxon ("Zookeeper") and Jim Rash ("Community") based on the 2009 novel by actress Kaui Hart Hemmings.

The film has the offhand, real-life sense and cool intelligence of "Sunshine Cleaning" (2008), "Juno" (2007) and "Little Miss Sunshine" (2006), albeit with a soundtrack of Hawaiian music and backdrop of picturesque Hawaii.

Of course, even in Hawaii, it's not always sunny. As we all know, that only happens in Philadelphia.

Look for an Oscar actor nomination for Clooney, supporting actress nomination for Woodley, and screenplay and director's nominations.

"The Descendants," MPAA Rated R (Restricted. Under 17 Requires Accompanying Parent Or Adult Guardian) for language including some sexual references; Genre: Comedy, Drama; Run Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes; Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Credit Readers Anonymous: In the final scene in "The Descendants," the voice heard is that of Morgan Freeman, narrating "The March of the Penguins" (2005), which Matt King (George Clooney) views with daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller).

Box Office, Dec. 9: "New Year's Eve" arrived early but with little to celebrate, opening at No. 1 with a weak $13.7 million, keeping "The Sitter" sitting at No. 2, opening with only $10 million, and dropping "The Twilight Series: Breaking Dawn, Part 1" to No. 3 after three weeks at No. 1, with $7.9 million, $259.5 million, four weeks. "Twilight" is the year's third highest-grossing movie, behind "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" and "Transformers: Dark of the Moon."

4. "The Muppets," $7 million, $65.8 million, three weeks; 5. "Arthur Christmas," $6.6 million, $33.4 million; three weeks; 6. "Hugo," $6.1 million, $33.4 million, three weeks; 7. "The Descendants," $4.8 million, $23.6 million, four weeks; 8. "Happy Feet Two," $3.7 million, $56.8 million, four weeks; 9. "Jack and Jill," $3.2 million, $68.6 million, five weeks; 10. "The Immortals," $2.4 million, $79.8 million, five weeks

Unreel, Dec. 16:

"Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," PG-13: Robert Downey Jr. is back as Sherlock Holmes as is Jude Law as Dr. Watson, as they try to outwit Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). Guy Ritchie directs the action-thriller that also stars Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace.

"Carnage," R: Roman Polanski directs the comedy-drama starring Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz as two sets of parents who meet after their sons are involved in a school playground fight.

"Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked," G: The gang is marooned on a tropical island in the animated film comedy.

"Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel," R: A documentary about low-budget movie producer-director Roger Corman.

Read previous movie reviews at www.tnonline.com [1]. Email Paul Willistein at: pwillistein@tnonline.com [2] and on Facebook.

Three Popcorn Boxes out of Five Popcorn Boxes