Hawaiian lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) is forced to reconnect with his daughters when his wife is injured in a water-skiing accident, leaving her in a coma. However, while he attempts to build bridges with his two anxious girls, his misfortune is compressed with the unwelcome news that his wife has been having an affair. Sideways director Alexander Payne draws a sublime performance of grizzled anxiety from his star in a performance that he's never bettered. The bittersweet script also landed an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.
George Clooney joins Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt), Paul Giamatti (Sideways) and Matthew Broderick (Election) in director Alexander Payne's gang of damaged-but-decent guys trying to get a break.
He plays middle-aged Hawaiian lawyer Matt King, the affable dad - or "back-up parent" of two daughters he's fathered but never really had to look after.
All that changes when his thrill-seeking wife is involved in a water-skiing accident which leaves her in a coma with little hope of regaining consciousness.
Matt's younger daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) reacts by showing disturbed classmates sketches of her bedridden mother wreathed in hospital tubes while rebellious 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) has to be collected from boarding school on a neighbouring island.
To compound crises, the accident occurs when workaholic Matt is facing a delicate decision about what to do with 25,000 acres of unspoiled land on the island of Kauai that his skint relatives are pushing him to sell and make them all wealthy.
It's at what you might imagine to be rock bottom that director Payne boldly and brutally pulls the emotional rug from under the grieving Matt, revealing that his wife - feeling unloved and taken for granted - has betrayed him.
Clooney - who was rejected by Payne for Sideways because he was too well-known - turns in his most warmly nuanced performance yet, imbuing Matt with an emotionally raw, careworn charm.
Wryly playing against his matinee idol looks, even a scene where - just discovering he's been cuckolded - he skitters down the road on flip-flops as the enormity of the betrayal sinks in.
Seven years after his last outing, Payne - neatly subverting the idea of Hawaii as an untroubled island paradise - shows he can still steer a sure path between humour and heartache.
The last, touching final frame is worth the entrance price alone.