George Clooney’s new movie The Descendants opens this Wednesday, but thanks to a lengthy run on the festival circuit—including the prestigious Toronto and New York Film Fests—buzz is already snowballing for the Hawaii-set familial dramedy. Clooney stars as Matt King, a lawyer appointed as the trustee of a sizable portion of Hawaiian land. As his family weighs their options and the moment of decision-making draws nearer, King’s life is thrown into chaos when his wife suffers from a boating accident that leaves her in a coma. Caring, for the first time, for his unconscious wife and their two kids, King uncovers an unimaginable secret—his wife was having an affair.
That’s heavy material, and for one of Hollywood’s best actors, a meaty part to chew on. In the hands of director Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways), King’s journey of self-discovery wavers fluidly between moments of despondency and comedy, relishing in the rare instances when one finds amusement in a nightmare situation. Unfortunately, even with all the praise to the filmmakers and stars, I think there’s something that stands in the way of the movie truly resonating: George Clooney.
That’s a painful admission. As I said, Clooney is a powerful creative talent, but after seeing his performance in The Descendants, I’ve realized he may be his own worst enemy, fame costing him his chameleon quality. He can nab great roles in Hollywood, but his status prevents him from shining. Looking back to his career, I’ve concluded that there are three types of Clooney movies:
1. Clooney as a kooky character—aka a crazy version of George Clooney (From Dusk Til Dawn, Leatherheads, any Coen Bros. collaboration).
2. Clooney as a charismatic, handsome badass—aka a George Clooney version of George Clooney (Ocean’s 11, Michael Clayton, The American).
3. Clooney as a Regular Joe—aka an emotional version of George Clooney (Syriana, Up in the Air, The Descendants).
It’s this third category where Clooney’s real life presence begins to interrupt his on-screen persona. He delivers a solid performance in The Descendants—regardless of the categorization of his movies, the man’s always enigmatic—but no matter what Clooney conveys on screen, he’ll always be larger than life. He’s been named “Sexiest Man Alive” by pretty much every magazine in existence. He’s flown around the world to protect social rights and raise money for charities. He acts, writes, directs, produces and is always in the Hollywood spotlight. But he’s anything but a Regular Joe.
That’s not fair and it definitely shouldn’t be the case, but no matter how much I’d like to separate actor from his characters, with stars this big, it’s impossible. That’s the struggle of a leading man, and why someone like Brad Pitt has makes the smart decision to take the occasional supporting role. Pitt has never shied away from colorful supporting roles—the stoner in True Romance, a mental patient in 12 Monkeys or a goofball personal trainer in Burn After Reading. He shows off his range so that when he comes back to a subtle, grounded role (like this year’s Moneyball), the transition appears seamless and the effort more demanding. George Clooney sticks to variations of George Clooney. Sometimes it works wonders—last year’s The American, a movie about Clooney’s face, is a work of art. Other times, like in a movie where I’m supposed to believe his wife cheated him, it doesn’t.
That’s the perk of beginning and striving to remain a “character actor.” Is there any role Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laura Linney, Steve Buscemi, Cate Blanchett or a handful of other men and women couldn’t easily slip into? They’re certainly on the radar, but flown low enough never to hit true movie stardom. Clooney is nothing less than brilliant when he’s playing variations of the slick, confident persona his celebrity self has developed, but when it comes to tackling the ins and outs of true character drama (i.e. plots that don’t involve economic conspiracies, assassinations, etc.), he’ll always be his own blockade.
Some actors have found ways around the burden of their own fame. Look at Johnny Depp, an indie hero who rose to A-List status after an energetic performance as Captain Jack Sparrow in the first Pirates of the Caribbean and hasn’t looked back since. And I’m not sure he could—Finding Neverland was a stretch for the actor, who, these days, sticks to kooky, Burton characters. Depp, for me, has become aware of how fame, in some way, tarnished his rep, and his course of action was to go bigger and crazier.
I don’t want George Clooney to do that. I like him too much. But I’m not sure what Clooney can do to shake of this career hardship besides voluntarily stepping out of the eye of the public (a near impossible task). And, let’s be honest, there’s no reason for him to do that—whether he’s truly excellent or simply okay in a movie, the masses will flock to his movies and Hollywood will laud him with awards. The Descendants is an enjoyable attempt for Clooney to break his own mold, and that’s enough for a man with the clout to do whatever the heck he wants.
It’s a paradox: I’ll see all his movies, I’ll praise him when he delivers, but in the end, it’s my own damn fault I’ll never see a great George Clooney performance.