Mention Hawaii, and one tends to think of gorgeous landscape, kitsch shirts, grass skirts, a laidback "Aloha" paradise.

But it's an image that makes the hero of The Descendants decidedly ill at ease. "Paradise," Matt King tells us, "can go f*** itself".

Matt (George Clooney) has good reason to feel depressed. A boating accident has left his wife Elizabeth in a coma, he barely knows his two daughters, and this sedate and cautious man is feeling the guilt of having failed all three. "I'm ready to be a real husband, ready to be a real father," he pleads to his unconscious partner. "Just wake up." The fact she can't means he'll never be able to prove himself to her; the focus, then, is on his daughters, to whom he's been no more than "the back-up parent, the understudy". Matt needs to step up to the plate.

Thus begins an Oscar-nominated film so subtly delivered that it defies easy categorisation. Then again, that could be said of all Alexander Payne's films. Election, About Schmidt, Sideways and now The Descendants mesh comedy and drama, pathos and pratfalls without any discernible seams, offering a sense of reality that is rarely captured on screen.

While all these films are adapted from novels (this one by Kaui Hart Hemmings), a common denominator is the director's interest in men who are unhappy with their place in the world, who know they have underachieved. These guys never progress towards fulfilment or understanding in a straightforward or even successful manner; they fumble, and that's what makes their efforts so engrossing.

Matt's troubles only get worse as the film progresses. While navigating his wife's impending death with his daughters – 17-year-old Alexandra and 10-year-old Scottie – he learns she was cheating on him at the time of the accident.

At the same time, he is negotiating the sale of thousands of acres of land owned by his extended family – a legacy of their ties to Hawaiian royalty – and which is set to make them millions. That also comes with pressure, to sell wisely, to preserve the virgin land from over-development.

And so we follow him on an island-hopping rite of passage, his daughters and Alexandra's stoner friend Sid in tow – ostensibly in search of his wife's lover, but really wrestling with his identity as a husband, father and Hawaiian.

Unlike the raucously funny Sideways, my favourite of Payne's films, this is a quieter, more restrained story, sometimes sombre, occasionally amusing, always charming and unerringly real.

At the heart of it is Clooney. Proving yet again his versatility (it's worth comparing this hangdog victim in flip flops with the suave conman Danny Ocean from Ocean's Eleven), he is very touching as an innately decent man who takes hit after painful hit with extraordinary stoicism. We learn something of Matt's inner life through his occasional voiceover, but most of it is evident in Clooney's darkly handsome, yet sad, expressive eyes.

Clooney is well-supported, particularly by Shailene Woodley as Alexandra (whose spiky presence and rapport with her screen dad give the film some much-needed verve) and Beau Bridges as cousin Hugh (whose laidback demeanour cracks when he thinks he might miss out on his payday). The tough nut beneath the hippy exterior is typical of the cheerily revisionist view of the locale the film offers. "Don't be fooled by appearances," Matt warns us. "In Hawaii some of the most powerful people look like bums and stuntmen."