The Descendants (2011, Alexander Payne) -- netflix
The American (2010, Anton Corbijn) -- netflix
You have to give credit where credit is due. After a stint on The Facts of Life in the '80's and a stint on Roseanne in the flip of the decade, for some time George Clooney was not even a has-been, but more of a never-was. Then ER hit, and he became "hunky" TV doctor George Clooney, the guy who every dude was sick of hearing the girls and women around them talking about. Quentin Tarantino, an unabashed pop-culture nut, loved ER and wanted to turn that good guy image on its head by casting him as the ass-kicking, bank robbing, vampire fighting Seth Gecko in From Dusk Til Dawn. It was an auspicious start to his big-screen career, one that was almost derailed by the expected romantic comedies (One Fine Day) and mid-budget action mediocrities (The Peacemaker) and franchise tent-pole taking-ups (Batman and Robin).
But then, it would seem, Clooney took full control of his career, deciding that he wouldn't work on projects for purely his own bankroll, but rather for directors that interest him, and on projects that stand-out. He spent the bulk of the late 90's and aughts with Steven Soderbergh, Robert Rodriguez and the Coen Bros., but also stints with David O. Russell, Terence Malick, and Wolfgang Petersen. It was natural that Clooney would come out of that impressive directorial roster with some damn fine films of his own.
In more recent years, Clooney's status as an A-list star has never faltered, in spite of the fact that he hasn't been part of a commercial blockbuster since the depreciating returns that were the Oceans movies. He's an innately charismatic personality, an impressively versatile actor and continually interesting in the choices he makes.
The Descendants, an adaptation of the Kaui Hart Hemmings bestseller, seems almost a safe bet, by Clooney's standards, but it's a full-on showcase of the man at his finest. For all his handsomeness, Clooney isn't a slave to an ego, and this film -- about a Hawaiian lawyer facing his comatose wife's infidelity, his troubled children, and a massive real estate deal in which he is the sole trustee of a large chunk of unspoiled land -- finds him in terribly unflattering printed shirts and unglamorous lighting emphasizing his grey hair and wrinkles. For a man with no children, he certainly proves believable as a father.
The Oscar-winning movie, for it's rather stern subject matter, these very heavy elements weighing on this patriarch, finds a much gentler tone, which doesn't mean that director Payne nor his cast abandon the raw emotional aspect, but it finds more wonder and curiosity rather than fastidious drama in these characters and situations. Clooney is the figurehead for this balanced approach, providing a handful of memorable scenes in which his affinity for physical comedy shines, but is restrained in such a way as to not jar the even-handedness of the presentation. Clooney's memorable running-in-flip-flops sequence was probably the key to understanding the film's approach to the story, followed by a brilliant encounter with his comatose wife's best friend whom he prods for details of her affair.
Family dramas have a tendency to skew into over-wrought and over-acted territory, mining far too much drama out of unresolved tension. On the flipside, the trend has taken them to "quirky" extremes, where the characters play much more broadly, filled with often implausible eccentricity. Each can have their own rewards, but the derivatives seem endless and frequently tiresome. The Descendants surprisingly eschews these tropes and in doing so achieves a naturalness that is welcoming and resonant.
Clooney's completely restrained in the role, a cold-blooded killer, but not fearless and more anxious than he cares to let on. Never once does Clooney smile, for true pleasure seems a luxury he's unable to afford himself, and equally he's a man of few words, lest he reveal too much to be used against him.
He's assigned a job from his handler, to build a gun for an assassin, and the film lovingly lingers on the labors of doing so. It's not quite gun porn, because it has too much respect for the craftsmanship, but it's as interested in the meticulous details of the building of the weapon as it is in exploring its character.
It's a methodical -- some might say overlong -- production, one that doesn't abandon the tropes of the "mercenary" genre. It makes a film like Ronan look like Crank 2: High Voltage in comparison. Yet for all it's retreading of familiar moments and the fact that the same story could very well be condensed into a 20-minute short, Corbijn provides a distinct rhythm that keeps it from sinking into complete tedium. This is a part of the influx of Nordic filmmaking into the Hollywood system (see also the Millennium Trilogy, Nicolas Winding-Refn and Tomas Alfredson of late), the antidote to the "MTV Generation" of directors that has exacerbated into Paul Greengrass and Neveldine/Taylor chaos.
Where Clooney is integral to the success of The Descendants, I feel like many different actors could have filled the role of The American, and yet, Clooney provides a vulnerability and shaken confidence that mixes with a sense of experience and wisdom that few others in his age range (say an Alec Baldwin or Tom Cruise) could sensibly provide, so committed they are to holding onto lost youth. Clooney, on the other hand, is aging gracefully like few others in his profession choose to do. It's just a small part of what continues to make him so interesting, and make even his more challenging endeavors (like the American, or Solaris) worth seeking out.