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.
“The Men Who Stare at Goats” is the best movie with the worst name that we’ll likely see this year. Despite its silly title—which makes perfect sense in context of the movie, but will be a mystery to anyone unfamiliar with the story—this screwball George Clooney film has many serious points to make about the state of modern warfare, but does so with a healthy dose of satire.
Based on a story that is “more true than you think” it begins when journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) uncovers a story about the New Earth Army, a secret psychic battalion of super soldiers sponsored by the US government in hopes of finding a new way to fight wars. The Pentagon wants to be the first super power to develop super powers. Teaming up with Lyn Cassidy (Clooney), a veteran psychic soldier, Wilton tracks down Cassidy’s mentor Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), an eccentric New Age shaman now working at a prison camp in Iraq run by Kevin Spacey’s character, Larry Hooper. Hooper is a former psychic soldier who lived in Cassidy’s shadow until he managed to subvert the original purpose of the New Earth’s Army and take control.
Directed by hyphenate actor-turned-George Clooney’s best friend-turned-writer-turned-director Grant Heslov, the pen behind “Good Night and Good Luck” the movie has a wonky feel right from the get go. Its dizzying blend of slapstick, satire and drama is a hard thing to pull off, but Heslov with the help of his lead actors and a strong supporting cast including Coen Brothers regular Stephen Root, find just the right tone for the first hour.
In fact, the first sixty minutes of “The Men Who Stare Sat Goats” is giddy good fun; as fun a ride as there is in theatres this year. Its absurdist, 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—and no joke is too broad. It’s as if Crosby and Hope had gone to Iraq instead of Singapore or Utopia. Then along comes Kevin Spacey who ruins all the fun.
It’s as if the filmmakers were afraid to stick to their guns and make a surreal free form movie so they added Spacey’s sniveling character to add in some conflict. It’s meant to up the drama of the piece but it’s the point at which the movie loses much of its zip. The conflict Spacey brings is simply not as interesting as the rest of the film. The final third of the film suffers for it, but it remains an unpredictable romp with some nice performances and pointed comments on the absurdity of war. I couldn’t help but think that if someone like Robert Altman had made this film in 1974 the message and the madness would have been intact without the spoiler of Spacey.