Unless you’re on a serious media diet, it can be difficult to miss the roar of publicity praise machines churning out promotions and profiles during awards season. We’re currently surviving a stage-one George Clooney avalanche and, while somewhat understandable (it’s just show biz, after all), I confess that I find the gooey adulation of Clooney a bit much to bear.
Both Ides of March and The Descendants, Clooney’s latest fare, get steady high ratings from critics (earning 86% and 89%, respectively, on the Tomatometer). The few holdout reviewers expressing reservations tend to parenthesize their critiques by commenting how “Clooney does his best” despite a bad script, or by asking, without irony, “Is Clooney great, or what?” (The latter from MTV newsman Kurt Loder.)
It wouldn’t be fair, of course, to blame Clooney for so much critical deference. But to make it worse, the interviews taking up so much space in Esquire and Rolling Stone during the past month read more like SNL parodies of Mr. Famous Actor Being Famous. Clooney blabs about himself with offhand, clipped sentence rhythms, a linguistic equivalent of chest-thumping that lies somewhere between wannabe Hemingway and James Cagney’s gangster-wiseguys. The pictures seem satiric too: J. Crew-esque shots of Clooney living the good life in pseudo-sloppy sportswear and fine suits. Toss in a dog and a tall beer, spray the hose at the camera, grab a basketball. Finally, there’s the omnipresent mask of a mirror-conscious smile that says, “In these tough economic times, it’s hard, so hard, to be handsome.”
Why is everyone willing to indulge such drastic myopia? It’s been six years since South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone called Clooney out for his “perfect storm of self-satisfaction” in an Oscar acceptance speech with their “cloud of smug” episode. But the cloud seems to loom larger these days, spilling from media junkets and into Clooney’s actual work, particularly when that work aims to be “serious” or “profound.” I may not be a fan, but Clooney’s particular affectations do have a benign, even charming, effect in caper films such as Ocean’s 11, Ocean’s 12, Ocean’s 13, and even The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Deadpan glibness plays well when the stakes are absurd, shallow, cartoonish, or generated by stop-animation puppetry.
By contrast, both Ides of March and The Descendants are glaring exhibits of what happens when “deep” movies get made in the shadow of the smug cloud. I half-hoped that Ides (directed by, co-written by, and starring Clooney) would at least live up to the title’s Shakespearean allusion to comeuppance and betrayal. Instead, we get another inane story of a politician with (spoiler alert!) feet of clay.
Certainly this is not the worst flaw in the world, but what rose to the level of disturbing was the use of the female body as a plot device. The condemned intern character, who turned out not to be a character at all, was simply a composite of jagged female stereotypes jerked into motion to move the plot. She’s super hot and up for sex! Wait: she’s a weepy Catholic girl who can’t tell her parents she’s pregnant! Hold on: she’s a passive child who lets Ryan Gosling drive her to the abortion clinic. No! She’s a desperate Ophelia, taking a fatal overdose of pills after one last hysterical phone call to The Clooney Candidate.
Meanwhile, guys in the film (with only minor insight allowed from the usually interesting Marisa Tomei) argue and glower about What It All Means. The whole movie would have been comical if it weren’t such clumsy drama—and such a sexist cliché.
The Descendants took this cliché to a whole other level. Last week at Think Progress, Alyssa Rosenberg wrote a spot-on analysis of the obvious yet oblivious class privilege in the film. It was the only such critique I could find. Rosenberg also aptly noted how all the adult family members in the story seem like props set up to service Clooney’s character’s head-scratching and minor epiphanies about what to do with a massive parcel of inherited land in Hawaii.
But having seen Ides first, the opening frame of The Descendants filled me with a different, but immediate and visceral, dread. The image of a woman enjoying herself took up the whole screen, silently, for a few moments—sun and sea spray on her tanned face, leaning back into a glorious day of waterskiing. I knew then that she was doomed, not just to death but to status as an object. Sure enough, her smiling image faded to black as she crashed somewhere quietly under Clooney’s voice-over and landed in a coma, where she spent the entire film as everyone spoke around, over, about, and in the name of her.
The daughters in this movie have similar fates as characters, though they’re allowed to live. The younger is an endearing tween with a potty mouth (she disappears awkwardly during large segments of the film). The elder is a high school kid that drinks too much but is wise beyond her years. (Original!) So how can a rich man cope with these young female human beings? Clooney’s character asks the high schooler’s dufus boyfriend this very question, and the kid’s depressing answer—“Trade ‘em in for sons”—is met with Clooney’s even more depressing shrugoff. Near the end of the film, after we spend an hour tracking down the man who’s cuckolded Clooney the Husband, he makes sure to kiss the guy’s wife on the mouth in what feels like a gratuitous and doglike marking gesture.
I’m thinking too hard, you say? I thought these movies were deep.
Last year, Clooney made an advertisement for DNB, a financial services group in Norway. A woman wakes up in a bed in an opulent suite somewhere. She’s disoriented, disheveled, and clearly hungover, not knowing where she is or what’s she’s done. Suddenly, Clooney enters from another room—playing no one but himself this time. He says, “I was letting you sleep. You like your dress? It looks better off than on.” The ad slogan is, “Some of us are lucky in life. For the rest of us, saving up can be smart.” The woman in the ad gapes gratefully but says no words. Who knows if she’s lucky or not? There could be a coma in her future.
Layer Clooney’s successive personae next to one another, and this bizarre joke about a blackout-induced marriage is just another thing to laugh off or ascribe, a bit too tolerantly, to Clooney’s good-natured wealth and handsomeness.
Ironically, in his latest cover splash for Entertainment Weekly (sharing interview and cover space with Viola Davis), Clooney quips, “It’s much harder to get a film with a woman lead made. When a man hits 40 is when roles just begin to happen. And for women it doesn’t happen. I find that to be a very concerning issue.”
How generous of him to notice. Sadly, unless he re-examines his current aesthetic pattern, I don’t see much room for full-fledged female humanity in any solutions Clooney might conjure up for the screen. Critics and audiences don’t seem to be pressing that he do much differently, either.
I’ll give him credit for his efforts to avert conflict in Sudan by putting a satellite in the sky. But I’ll also take a cue from someone, a journalist who lives on the ground in that region, unimpressed by Clooney’s celebrity and asking a legitimate question: “Who is that man talking?”
More importantly: Why are we listening so hard and paying so little attention?