The highly entertaining George Clooney and Vera Farmiga are in very fine form as occasional jet-set lovers, but this comedy-drama about a businessman whose job involves traveling around the country from corporate office to corporate office and handing people their pink slips — plus a pep talk about the positive aspects of unemployment — quickly devolves from slick recession satire into glumly moralizing parable. In the film’s first half, Ryan Bingham (Clooney) is a smug free spirit, finding degrees of happiness in his first-class seating privileges and accumulated airline mileage even as he disassociates himself emotionally from the reality of the lives he’s disrupting. He even gives motivational speeches about the dangers of accumulating material goods and personal relationships, advocating a highly mobile, narrow-footprint existence. And thus the film’s second half contrives to teach him a lesson about the importance of companionship, the significance of family and grown roots, and the general emptiness of his frequent-flier pursuits.
Wes Anderson’s films have always featured a kind of play-acting, from the cops-and-robbers shenanigans of Bottle Rocket to the spiritual tourism of The Darjeeling Limited, with his characters trying on different personas for size. Maybe that’s why Fantastic Mr. Fox, itself a new kind of persona, fits so clearly and cleverly into Anderson’s body of work, which helps make it such an unexpected joy from start to finish — the director’s best since Rushmore. A typically easygoing Anderson cast, anchored by a nicely understated George Clooney in the title role, inhabits a world of talking animals who are almost, but not quite, human. With a lo-fi stop-action style that well suits the Roald Dahl vibe plus an uncompromised deployment of the director’s stylistic trademarks, Mr. Fox simply follows that golden rule of great kids’ movies by declining to pander to anybody’s idea of what a kid should or shouldn’t find amusing. Helped along by a suitably droll screenplay, everyone involved exudes heaps of effortless cool — this film is the kind of suave you get when you’re having just huge amounts of fun.
“I’m not the guy that you kill; I’m the guy that you buy.”
After the following review appeared in the White Plains Times, I got an email from my friend Sharon — I’ll call her “Ms. K” — that spurred more thinking and writing on the subject. I’m including the review, Ms. K’s response, and my replies below. (Thanks, Sharon!)
Think of this intense drama about corporate shenanigans as
the capper to a George Clooney trilogy about duty, ethics and professionalism.
Along with Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck, Michael Clayton is
about careerism and morality. Clooney’s titular protagonist is a high-powered fix-it
man for a
law firm representing a corporate client whose pesticides may be killing
farmers. He’s working to repair the damage done by Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson),
a high-profile litigator who went off his meds and had a nervous breakdown (or
a crisis of conscience) during a deposition. The story stays in standard
conspiracy thriller territory, but what’s remarkable is the way it’s filmed. Writer/director
Tony Gilroy keeps the camera close to all of his actors, especially Clooney and
Tilda Swinton–playing a sweaty, high-powered corporate lawyer with her own
reasons for tracking Edens down–and their intensely nuanced performances reward
the attention. Cinematographer Robert Elswit has a dazzling eye for actors’
faces, and he makes good use of the widescreen frame and the film’s authentic
smart and spooky stuff. The only misstep is a tidy climax–it’s too conventional
an ending for this refreshingly bold, ethically fraught thriller.
The old razzle-dazzle is back with the release of Ocean’s Thirteen, a third outing in the star-anchored caper franchise. It returns to the neon glow and slot-machine jangle of Las Vegas, where aptly named entrepreneur Willy Bank (Al Pacino) is bilking his erstwhile partners out of their fair share in his new hotel/casino venture, and Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and crew are scheming to take Bank down. To call the ensuing plotline “highly improbable” would be paying it an enormous compliment. It’s ludicrous, contrived, and borderline crazy. Of course, that’s almost completely irrelevant with this cast. Clooney’s great talent is putting on an air of seriousness that suggests he doesn’t know how good he looks doing it. Matt Damon selflessly casts aside movie-star ego and spends most of his screen time wearing a gigantic fake schnozz to gentle comic effect. Brad Pitt remains completely and spectacularly chilled out for the duration. Best of all, director Steven Soderbergh’s camera takes it all in with jazzy, unburdened élan, zipping easily from character to character. Don’t expect an engaging or absorbing heist yarn. But of the summer sequels released so far, it’s easily the least complicated and most entertaining—and probably the smartest.
In trying to get a handle on The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, I wrote about the Herbert Ross version of Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven, deciding that it spoke to the apparent impossibility of ever making another great Hollywood musical. Why wasn’t it obvious then that the Coens, with their innate eccentricities, flair for grand theater, and command of editing rhythms, would be just the folks to reinvent the genre? O Brother, Where Art Thou? only gets partway there — it’s not exactly a musical, and it’s only “Hollywood” in the literal sense. But it is a whimsical, lyrical journey through a national heritage suggested and fulfilled by the songs that hold it together.