George Clooney is the model of a modern movie star. His accountant told him one day he never had to work another day in his life and he decided to use that "fuck you" money to make good movies. (Solaris and The Good German were both noble Steven Soderbergh failures.) I understand that Clooney signed off on Warner Bros.' stupid distribution decision to go wide with Michael Clayton on the second weekend.
What makes me crazy is that the studio had a well-reviewed, smart-house, classy movie that played well for the Academy and cost only $22 million. That's peanuts to a studio like Warners and there was no earthly reason to go wide! They could have let those per-screen averages play out slowly over time, kept the movie simmering in a successful mode, and widened gradually, keeping the Oscar race in mind. This is the kind of movie that builds and finds an audience. As long as it's successful, all well and good. But taint it with a 4th-place weekend and you've got the perception of damaged goods.
As to whether George Clooney is a star: if he gets paid $20 million, does he open the movie? Well, the guy doesn't get paid that much. He'd rather get his money in back-end gross. If he chooses to topline big commercial ensembles like the Oceans series or star opposite a giant wave, that's fine. If he makes overtly uncommercial movies that still do business, because they're Oscar-worthy, like Syriana and Good Night and Good Luck, that few other actors would have risked, that's fine too.
Look at someone like Harrison Ford, who's too scared to star in Traffic or Syriana. Is that who we want Clooney to be? There is value in a movie star like Jodie Foster (The Brave One aside, a violent action movie nobody wanted to see her in) or Clooney who represents quality. When the adult audience believes that their movies will be good, they will come--but not necessarily all at once on one weekend.
With all due respect to my colleague Brian Lowry, who correctly called Michael Clayton a tricky sell because the movie lacked car chases and the usual formulaic thrills and chills--that's exactly why the movie is so good, and why it's ranked at 82 on Metacritic.
[Originally appeared on Variety.com]