Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Clooney Factor

The following column is reprinted from the January issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem neccessary to leave out):

Eyes Wide Open
by Scott Duhamel

It’s an age-old parlor game, known to certifiable cinephiles and those who kinda dip their toes in. What contempo actor or actress best represents, substitutes, replicates, approximates, conjures up, pays homage to, works within the shadow of, or maybe even directly connects to which iconic screen star of the past? Are Jack Nicholson or Robert DeNiro or Sean Penn legit Sons Of Brando? Is there a thin line that connects Veronica Lake to Angie Dickinson to Ellen Barkin to Sharon Stone to Vera Farmiga? Did James Dean begat Paul Newman who begat Brad Pitt? Is there really a logical connection between Jimmy Stewart and Tom Hanks? Is Cate Blanchett the new Katherine Hepburn, Johhny Depp what Monty Clift could have become, Liam Neeson hovering between becoming the second coming of Richard Burton, Albert Finney or Richard Harris? And, of course, is George Clooney the new version of Cary Grant?

Clooney, who by the way, is enjoying one hell of year-end showcase with the recent roll out of The Men Who Stare at Goats, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the just released Up in the Air, seems to me, to be very worthy of comparison to the consummate Grant. Both exhibited a unique blend of pure good looks, gentlemanly sophistication, and an overriding mix of worldly irony, inner charm, and a genuine sense of remarkable self-depreciation. Grant, like Georgie Boy, made himself equally at home in screwball comedies, romantic sudsers, suspenseful pieces, and out and out actioneers. Both actors seem consummately masculine; yet exhibit a heightened sense of sartorial style, the smart comic tendency to lean into a clueless subterfuge of overconfidence, and (when playing it tough, haggard, or cool) an alchemic air of brilliant nonchalance.

Grant, long overlooked by critics yet embraced by audiences, marked his greatest achievements under the steadfast tutelage of Howard Hawks (Only Angels Have Wings, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday) and Alfred Hitchcock (Notorious, To Catch a Thief. North by Northwest), Clooney, who seems to bring forth a nitcrit-penned essay following him every few films with a title like “The Last of the Movie Stars?” has been best utilized by smart-aleck filmmakers Steven Soderbergh and The Coen Brothers. Both men sport pasts that to some diminish their later achievements; with Grant (born Archibald Leach) beginning his showbiz career as an acrobat in a traveling troupe, and Clooney starting out as infamously unlucky TV participant in a multitude of failed television pilots. Both also engage their big screens roles with a seeming modicum of effort, and their respective sweat less role-playing does not bring forth the typical critical hosannas.

A recent Time magazine piece by Richard Corliss divvied up Clooney’s performances into three simple categories: Serious George (The Perfect Storm, Solaris, Syriana), Glorious George (Out of Sight, Ocean’s Eleven, Fantastic Mr. Fox) and Spurious George (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Burn After Reading, The Men Who Stare At Goats). Corliss also claimed that Clooney’s turn as Ryan Bingham, the seemibly smooth operator who blissfully flies the friendly skies in Jason Reitman’s adaptation of Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel Up in the Air, before touching ground to execute the vagaries of his one-of-a-kind-job---firing unsuspecting corporate day workers—is among the first roles that the actor can be seen as Total George, utilizing aspects of all three of his well known big screen personas. (Anthony Lane, in the New Yorker, made much the same point, while labeling Clooney’s division of roles as “cranky stiffs, troubled defenders of honor, and gossamer smoothies.”)

Up in the Air may indeed be Clooney’s best performance to date, it can certainly lay claim to be among his most affecting. Neither Clooney’s central figure or the film ever seeps into the redemptive mode, and both movie and performance benefit for their bold fence straddling, and refusal to wrap up near anything neatly. Vera Farmiga, as the fellow traveler and soul sister with whom Clooney’s fixer gets entangled with, is for once, an on screen feminine counterpart who seems truly adult and intoxicatingly equal. Up in the Air is a woefully sad sack economic fable for our times, but Total George ups the ante, making it a personal tale that belies its basic structure as a very dark social comedy. Director Reitman traffics in a shimmering and resonant ambiguity, and Clooney proves well more than able in delivering an incisive central performance that is exquisitely poised between acerbic disdain and lost boy soul searching. George Clooney is indeed a big screen rarity—the matinee idol that can act with the best of them.