I have come to the entirely un-revelatory conclusion that George Clooney is the new Sydney Pollack.
Pollack came into the public eye in the ‘60s and effortlessly bridged a burgeoning counterculture movement with big-studio Hollywood; he produced, directed, acted; he worked nearly equally in TV and film and he even bridged the never-narrowed divide between European and American film, appearing in the French Fauteuils d'orchestre only two years before his 2008 death from stomach cancer. With zero fanfare, he shifted between indie and big-budget films to produce some of the best films of the last decade, including Ira Sach’s Forty Shades of Blue, Michael Clayton and the underrated Breaking and Entering, directed by the also recently deceased Anthony Minghella, with whom he exec-produced No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. And let's not forget his pivotal cameo in the last season of The Sopranos, which I prefer to pretend was his last role. (His actual last role was in the one-for-them Made of Honor.)
I cried when he died. He was my kind of tall, gravely-voiced hero: a cool nerds who was so comfortable with himself that he made you comfortable. We need more people who don’t get distracted by the us vs. them game if standards are to truly improve.
And now there’s George Clooney, with whom he often worked. True, George is distractingly, suspiciously pretty. Couple those good looks with the tics that distinguished his early acting (the lowered lid gaze; the eternal head-rolling) and it’s no wonder he once seemed the unlikeliest of candidates to take up Pollack’s mantle. He languished forever in TV: Facts of Life, Roseanne and then as Dr. Ross, the rake with the Roman haircut, in ER. (Amusingly, he also had an early stint in an ‘80s sitcom called E/R.) But late blooming lent him the complexity that those good looks never could--his real-deal clan also may have helped along those lines—and suddenly the way he worked his jaw spoke of longer, more compelling shadows.
So while he floundered in the franchise-halting Batman & Robin and painful Michelle Pfeiffer romcom, he made his celluloid name in less likely projects: the QT-written Robert Rodriguez genre-fucker From Dusk Til Dawn and in Out of Sight (to date, my favorite Steven Soderbergh movie). These days he works in TV and film; speaks both indie and big-budget; produces, directs, acts; plays nicely with both the boys and suits; wags his tail and his brows; shifts beautifully between comedy and drama; and serves as a regular player for nearly every interesting American director. He’s a secret nerd, someone who relishes roles that render him the butt of the joke, whether it’s as the wheeler-dealer who’s no longer doing either effectively, or as the handsome buffoon whose vanity keeps landing him in hot water to great comic effect. He also channels a downtrodden watchfulness in roles like Michael Clayton. But the serious side—the gravitas as opposed to aw-shuckness—emerges best when he’s behind the camera, when his only real flaw can be death-by-earnestness. And let’s not forget his politics, as in: He actually has them. Not knee-jerking grandstands, but long-tail, deeply considered values that he brings to bear in a grip of projects. Like Pollack, Clooney seems to believe in the power of the medium to not only move people but to stir them to action. Is he the best actor, producer and director around? Not yet, and he may never make the robust, nearly infallible crowd-pleasers that marked Pollack’s career. But for all the clatter that always surrounds Clooney, the breadth of his contributions still go oddly unnoticed. Along with a handful of others, he is steadily laboring to raise movies’ bar, and arguably ours in the process. He seems to hold America itself to standards that we've largely scrapped or, worse, forgotten.
And speaking of swoony Clooney, Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is so much better than I had hoped, largely because of baby George. Based on its surrounding flap—the reputed crew animosity toward their largely invisible director; the ridiculously masturbatory New Yorker profile (naturally, since Anderson shares its twee sensibility)-- I had feared it would be a self-involved jumble. It’s not. It’s clever and endearing. Stop-motion may be the ideal medium for detail-obsessed Wes, and the voice actors do a wonderful job, especially Streep, whose voice proves downright sensual separated from her hyper-gesticulation. But the real star is Clooney. Disembodied from his actual physicality, he is easier in his skin, freer to express a rakish, indeterminate sexuality that falls in step with an old-Hollywood tradition of the impossibly dashing leading male. Ahem.
The film’s only real weakness is that, even at 88 minutes, it lags near the end. Ever since Anderson started cowriting with Noah Baumbach, his films never have a decent third act. That is because Baumbach simply cannot write a good script. He can hatch a decent premise with well observed characters, but he cannot actually plot. Words I never thought i'd utter: O Owen Wilson, where art thou?