erik lundegaard

Friday May 29, 2015

The Annotated Kyle Smith: What the NY Post Critic Gets Wrong About George Clooney, and Why

The following appeared in yesterday's New York Post under the headline “Face It, George Clooney Sucks.” The Post is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who is famously conservative, while the actor George Clooney is famously liberal. The piece is written by Kyle Smith (conservative, semi-famous), while the comments in bold are mine (liberal, not famous):

It's time for Hollywood to face facts: George Clooney is not a star. Because...?

If you matched them up head-to-head, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson would crush him — and I don't just mean literally. Ah, this is about box office. I've written about George Clooney's lack of box-office clout, too, a year and a half ago. I was just less of a douche about it. 

Clooney's latest is the gargantuan flop “Tomorrowland” — a $190 million bomb (not including $100 million or so in worldwide marketing costs) that looks like it's going to gross a little more than half of that at the North American box office. It'll be interesting to see how it does internationally, but, yes, it's not a hit in the U.S.

It's delicately being referred to as an underperformer because no one in Hollywood wants to hurt the fragile petals of Clooney's feelings. Isn't that the usual Hollywood euphemism: “underperformer”? I'm asking not telling. BTW: “fragile petals”? That's an example of the douchiness.

The failure of this supposed tentpole release is yet another sign that Clooney, who has been headlining movies for 19 years, just doesn't sell tickets. If his movies took in a dollar's profit for every magazine cover and breathless infotainment tidbit on him, they'd earn more money than they actually do at the box office. Clooney is on the cover of magazines because he sells magazines. It's called the free market. And if he doesn't open movies it's because not many actors open movies anymore. Characters open movies: Iron Man, Captain America, Katniss. (You could add “The Rock”; he's more character than actor.) Also because Clooney tends to make serious movies that open small. He's an adult in a kiddie culture. 

Stars like Johnson get fans excited enough to actually go to the movies. Clooney doesn't. That's a stretch, too. I like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson but he hardly opens movies. His three biggest hits are the three latest “Fast/Furious” films, where he's a supporting player. When he's the star, the movies do so-so: “Hercules” ($72m), “Pain and Gain” ($49.8), “Tooth Fairy” ($60).“ Don't even get me started on ”Doom“ ($28). Maybe things will change for him with ”San Andreas,“ but even there what's opening the film will be the spectacle: the apocalyptic porn, to quote ”Birdman.“

One role for which he was perfect — Danny Ocean — has created a lot of value for movie studios. Apart from the three ”Ocean's“ movies, the only other time he ever toplined a major hit was ”The Perfect Storm“ in 2000 — a movie whose star was a wave. Clooney wasn't pictured on the poster of that one and barely featured in the ads. Except in (sic) those four films, audience interest has been sparse. And ”Gravity.“ If you count the ”Fast/Furious“ films for Johnson, you have to count ”Gravity“ for Clooney.

From ”One Fine Day“ (1996) to ”Batman & Robin“ (1997) to ”Solaris“ (2002) to ”Intolerable Cruelty“ (2003) to ”The Good German“ (2006) to ”Leatherheads“ (2008) to ”The Men Who Stare at Goats“ (2009) to ”The Ides of March“ (2011) to ”The Monuments Men“ (2014), if Clooney was the main attraction, the movie was somewhere between a disappointment and a flop. Agreed. And most of those films were not only box office disappointments but critical disappointments. ... 

Of his 25 starring movies, four made a significant amount of money — that's a .160 batting average. That ain't cleanup hitter. That isn't even big-league. If Clooney were a shortstop, his only prayer of staying on the team would be if he were the owner's son. First rule of Hollywood: Most movies lose money. So the baseball analogy doesn't quite work. Or to make it work, you need to give us other batting averages.

It's not like Hollywood lacks for stars, defined as ”people who actually sell tickets.“ Again, look at Johnson: His notorious flop ”Hercules,“ from last year, still managed to gross $73 million in North America, $243 worldwide. Johnson is an odd choice to make this case. In the early 2000s, he was all but annointed the next Arnold Schwarzenegger and it never happened. He had muscles and personality, but the box office didn't arrive until he was attached to established vehicles, notably ”Fast/Furious.“ 

That's better than any of Clooney's movies has done since ”Ocean's Thirteen“ eight years ago. Except for ”Gravity,“ which grossed $716 million worldwide. 

Johnson's ”Journey 2: The Mysterious Island“ didn't land him on the cover of GQ — but so what? It banked $335 million worldwide. Clooney has only starred in two movies that did better than that in his entire career (the first two ”Ocean's“ films). And ”Gravity.“ And Johnson landed on the cover of GQ in Oct. 2003 for ”The Rundown.“ Which underperformed at $47.7 million.

By contrast, Johnson's three ”Fast and Furious“ films are by far the three highest-grossing entries in that seven-film series. True, I think his addition helped that series financially. Plus I prefer him to Vin Diesel. But if you give The Rock ”Fast/Furious,“ you gotta give Clooney ”Gravity.“ Which you're not doing. (See: douchiness.)

Hell, even Johnson's dumb ”Tooth Fairy“ movie did better than most of Clooney's. ”Tooth Fairy“ grossed $60 million U.S., $112 worldwide. Eleven of Clooney's films have done better domestically; 11 have done better worldwide. 

If the success of ”Gravity,“ which grossed more than Clooney's five preceding live-action star vehicles combined, is any indication, any producer hiring the actor for his movie would be best advised to kill him off in the first 20 minutes. (Sandra Bullock, on the other hand, has top-lined four hugely profitable films in just the past six years.) True. But she was box office ”meh“ (basically 1996-2009) until she wasn't. Now that would make an interesting article: the box-office turnaround of Sandy Bullock. 

Clooney isn't ”America's Leading Man“ (Vanity Fair, in 2006, breathlessly promoting his flop ”The Good German“) or ”The Last Movie Star“ (Time magazine, 2008, breathlessly promoting his flop ”Michael Clayton“). ”Breathlessly.“ Beware of writers lugging adverbs.

Clooney isn't even a movie star. He's just a guy who keeps getting highly paid to make movies nobody wants to see. The overall point is correct: Clooney's box office is less than one would expect from his status in the culture. But (one more time) it's mostly a consequence of the types of movies he chooses to make, who his audience is, and who goes to movies and why. You know this, Kyle. Or should. Or maybe you have blind spots to those who enrage your corporate masters—as you did in your review of Steve Coogan in ”Philomena." 

I'm sure I'll see more of you soon. 

George Clooney, Up in the Air

George Clooney waits patiently while Kyle Smith pleases his corporate masters.

Posted at 07:55 AM on Friday May 29, 2015 in category Movies - Box Office  
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