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The Descendants and The Ides of March

George Clooney scores twice at TIFF


George Clooney's arrival at the Toronto International Film Festival was a reminder that he's more than just a pretty face. There's the uber-celeb who pushed out Oceans 11, 12 and 13. There's the humanitarian unafraid to wade into the dangerous quicksand of the Darfur conflict. And then there's the journeyman actor, whose work includes as many misses (Burn After Reading, The American) as hits (Michael Clayton, Up in the Air). But during TIFF's opening weekend, it was clear that this year's Clooney is not only the director/producer of what is sure to be this fall's big hit, The Ides of March, but also a frontrunner for a Best Actor Oscar for his role in The Descendants.

In recent years, Clooney has begun exploring greater vulnerabilities in his characters, and now director Alexander Payne has handed Clooney the best role of his career so far. In The Descendants, Clooney plays tragically ordinary Matt King, whose life is defined by real-estate holdings. His world turns inside out when a boating accident leaves his wife in a coma. Suddenly the self-confessed "part-time father" must fix his two wild daughters, fractured by bad parenting. The result is a funny and mature examination of what happens when life--and even death--affords us another opportunity to do the right thing. Payne is a master of this type of storytelling (Sideways, About Schmidt).

"This is one of those parts where the actor is in a very uncomfortable zone; it's much more difficult for me. But I had a much better director," said Clooney, in his traditional self-effacing way. Of course he was alluding to the fact that he had just unveiled his own directing effort, The Ides of March, also at TIFF.

"What's the difference between George Clooney the actor and George Clooney the director? Well, we're pretty much the same guy. Same height. Same hair," Clooney joked.

Not exactly. In The Ides of March, Clooney's hair couldn't be more perfect. He plays Mike Morris, a fictional governor of the not-so-fictional state of Pennsylvania who is running for president. He's the perfect candidate--if you like your candidates left of Howard Dean.

The backdrop is the Ohio Primary, where Morris is on the precipice of securing enough delegates for the Democratic presidential nomination. He's surrounded by the best­--a seasoned campaign manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a bright, ambitious lieutenant (Ryan Gosling). Clooney was smart enough to cast Gosling in the larger, much-meatier role. Gosling is in practically every frame of the film, while Clooney's role is closer to a supporting character.

"It was really fun working for George," Gosling told the press, including BW.

Clooney, with no subtlety, slipped Gosling a $1 bill.

Right on cue, Gosling upped the ante.

"It was a life-changing experience," said Gosling as Clooney threw another dollar at him.

Lame jokes aside, The Ides of March is a dense melodrama. But audiences have been down this road before, if not at the movies then certainly on cable news, so it comes as no surprise when a scandal erupts, upending the campaign. Unfortunately, this is where the film almost jumps the track. The script only has one big surprise--it could have used two or three. Unfortunately the source material, Farragut North (a drama that played briefly Off Broadway in 2008), wasn't that strong. Nonetheless The Ides of March has perfect box-office timing in the shadow of a real-world presidential runoff.

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On BW's TIFF watchlist:

50/50--It's about cancer, but it's a beautiful film with a ton of great, funny moments.

Anonymous--Best costume drama since Elizabeth. The story will be vehemently debated.

The Artist--Maybe the most fun I've had at a movie in years. It's a love letter to the silver screen.

Moneyball--This is as good as the trailer promised and one of Brad Pitt's best.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen--Don't let the title throw you. This is a smart, romantic comedy.