George Clooney is a rare breed, a one-name film star. Mention “George” and everyone knows who you’re talking about.
He’s headlined a handful of films dating all the way back to when there was a Clinton in the White House that raked in north of $100 million. Since leaving the television show ER in 1999, he’s released two movies a year on average, including this weekend’s Money Monster, a thriller about the host of a financial advice show held hostage on live TV by an investor who lost everything.
Some of his films have been successful, others not, but it’s clear Clooney doesn’t aspire to be a blockbuster star. Perhaps it’s because George is, as Time called him, “the last movie star,” that he appears determined to smash what that kind of stardom means. By lending his name to offbeat movies he deconstructs the mechanism of superstardom.
George steers his career toward character driven pieces, often at the expense of giant box office numbers. And while the fabric of his fame may fray around the edges from time to time — he’s as susceptible to box office vagaries as anyone — he stays busy, winning Oscars, producing movies like August: Osage County and acting as pitchman for everyone from Fiat to Martini vermouth.
“I’m very aware of the fact that if not for a Thursday night time slot on ER, I wouldn’t have this career,” he once said, “so I’m going to push the limits as much as I can.”
From kid flicks to period dramas and political satire Clooney has done just that.
Loosely based on a Roald Dahl story, the stop-motion animated Fantastic Mr. Fox sees Clooney as a smooth-talking fox that returns to a life of crime after buying a tree house he can’t afford. Clooney brings charm, wit and warmth to an unpredictable character, smooth one minute, a wild animal the next.
Clooney also starred in The Good German, a tribute to 1940s cinema shot with technology from the golden age of Hollywood — the same lenses, the same atmospheric lighting, the same rat-a-tat-tat style of dialogue, the same everything. It’s a retro-looking film made with twenty-first century creative freedom. Clooney, as an American military journalist covering the Potsdam Conference in post-war Berlin, and co-star Cate Blanchett look like golden age movie stars but behave more like Brat Packers.
Strangest of all is The Men Who Stare at Goats, the best movie with the worst name on Clooney’s resume. He plays a psychic soldier in this screwball satire about the state of modern warfare. Its an absurdist film, filled with memorable images — Clooney staring down a goat, enlisted men doing the Watusi and a montage of Jeff Bridges embarking on a journey of enlightenment — where no joke is too broad or too barbed.
George is so artistically eclectic he even disowns one of his biggest hits. “I always apologize for Batman!” he says of the ludicrous Batman & Robin.
It’s quite a year to be a talking fox in Hollywood. After a long absence these carnivorous mammals are coming back strong with a surreal cameo in “Antichrist” (“Chaos Reigns!”) and now a starring role in a charming new stop-motion animation from director Wes Anderson, “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”
Loosely based on a Roald “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” Dahl story of the same name, the story involves Mr. Fox (George Clooney) a smooth talking chicken thief who is part Danny Ocean, part John Robie (look it up!). When a chicken run goes wrong and he and Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) get busted he tries to go straight, but after buying a tree house he can’t afford he decides to return to a life of crime for one last big job. He sets his sights on the area’s three biggest and baddest farmers: Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness) and Bean (Michael Gambon).
This has been an extraordinary year for kid’s filmed entertainment. “Up,” “Where the Wild Things Are” and “Coraline” are about as good as it gets when it comes to family films. They are movies that don’t talk down to their young audience; treat them with respect and give them a rollicking good time. You can add “Fantastic Mr. Fox” to that list.
Wes Anderson’s mix of deliberately old-school stop motion animation—you can see the fur moving where the animators have touched the puppet characters—gentle humor and action is unlike any other movie this year. In its pacing and style it is decidedly old fashioned, a throw back to the colorful Rankin and Bass animated Christmas specials, but without the schmaltz. I doubt you’d find an existential line like, “Now he’s just another dead rat in a dumpster behind a Chinese restaurant” in any other vintage stop motion film for kids and it is that edge that sets “Fantastic Mr. Fox” apart from the pap, like the recent “Astro Boy,” that passes for kid flicks.
You can tell it’s a Wes Anderson film because it’s loaded with his trademark subjects—sibling rivalry and unusual parental figures abound—and it has his quirky sensibility stamped all over it—there’s a transcendentally meditating fox!—but it is the vocal performances that really bring it to life.
George Clooney brings charm, wit and warmth to Mr. Fox. He’s an unpredictable character, smooth one minute, a wild animal the next, and Clooney gives him a nice sense of mischievousness. Meryl Streep doesn’t have as much to do, but it’s worth the price of admission to hear this celebrated actress (15 Oscar nominations and 2 wins) say, “Am I being flirted with by a psychotic rat?” The deliberate, naturalistic dialogue also comes easily to supporting cast members Bill Murray, Michael Gambon and Eric Anderson (brother of Wes) who makes his debut as Kristofferson, the athletic cousin.
Its stylish looks, engaging story and over-all wonky feel made me very happy. There are few kid’s films as fantastic as “Mr. Fox.”