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George Clooney probably feels like the king of whatever film festival, or movie theater, or Arby's restaurant he arrives at; I've never seen him in person, but he's one of those movie stars with a well-established physical aura, the kind of guy with the power to change the alchemy in the air the moment he walks into the room. But with two big roles in two of the biggest films at this year's Toronto Film Festival, he's seeming especially on top of the world. Between his latest directorial effort The Ides of March-- in which he also plays a small but crucial role-- and his starring performance in Alexander Payne's The Descendants, Clooney is everywhere you look in this town, starring in movies that everybody wants to talk about.
I did a little bit of that talking myself, on my trusty back porch in Toronto, on the five-minute video you can watch below. We'll talk more after.
I actually saw The Ides of March a week or two ago back in New York, which means it technically isn't a Toronto movie for me, but don't tell anyone I said that. It's among the weakest of the Toronto films I've seen so far, which I promise says way more for the quality than anything wrong with Ides. In fact, there's nothing really wrong with this movie at all-- it's exceptionally well acted, very smart, occasionally funny, dramatically interesting and never lags. But if you've seen an episode of The West Wing or even looked at the American political system with a moderately critical eye, the big twists and moral quandaries in Ides of March will feel incredibly tame. We watch Ryan Gosling's character, a gifted political speechwriter and media manager, make his way up through the campaign for Clooney's Presidential candidate, and the movie expects us to be surprised when Gosling compromises his ideals and turns into a worse person for having gotten involved in politics. The weak script combined with some tonal issues don't mask the many good things about The Ides of March, but there's a much smarter, better constructed movie in there that could have better used the dynamite cast.
The Descendants, on the other hand, is the closest I've seen to a perfect movie in a long, long time. It's Alexander Payne's first movie since Sideways, and for me a far richer, more humane and enjoyable film, though just as funny and sharp about all kinds of human desires and miseries that other directors never seem to deal with. Clooney is fantastic in a lead role that asks more of him than even Up in the Air did, playing a father of two dealing with the impending death of his wife (who is in a coma after a boating accident), the impending sale of 25,000 acres of land owned by his family for generations, and the new knowledge that his wife had been having an affair. He spends most of the film in the company of his two daughters, played by the incredible teenage actress Shailene Woodley and 10-year-old Amara Miller, and the three of them build a believable, contentious, ultimately tender rapport that gives the movie a surprising emotional punch. Payne hasn't softened since his Election days, exactly-- his gift for subtle satire is as sharp as ever--but he's opened his arms a bit, making a movie about some of life's deepest emotions and allowing the audience to feel everything along with the characters. The Descendants wears its heart on its sleeve but is careful not to overdo it, resulting in a film that's as moving as it is witty and dark. It's simply terrific.