Once upon a time a new George Clooney movie mattered.
Later, the same could be said of a Clooney directorial project.
Yes, the press will crank up the publicity machine for Clooney’s new Netflix film, “The Midnight Sky,” debuting Dec. 23.
Journalists view Clooney as the star he once was, the draw that powered movies like the “Oceans” series and “Up in the Air.”
That was then, eons ago in pop culture parlance. Hollywood is cruel, and it’s hard not to ask of Clooney, “what have you done for me lately?”
Not much, technically.
Clooney’s last starring role came with 2016’s “Money Monster,” a box office dud that left critics lukewarm. Last year’s Hulu series “Catch 22.” in which he co-starred and co-directed, came and went with nary a zeitgeist trace.
To be fair, Clooney did manage to squeeze in not one or two but three Nespresso film shorts in between “Money Monster” and “The Midnight Sky.” The man who gave his closest pals $1 million each has to pay the bills.
His directorial career, which began with so much progress courtesy of 2002’s “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” now seems like an extended vanity project. His 2017 dud “Suburbicon” died a quick box office death, and mercifully so.
Previously, he lassoed a killer cast (Bill Murray, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman) for “The Monuments Men,” a dispiriting war effort.
Perhaps “The Midnight Sky” will reverse his fortunes on a number of fronts. It’s more likely to be overwhelmed by the flood of new content Netflix delivers in any given week.
That’s not his fault. The trajectory of his career, though, is another matter.
On paper, the 59-year-old Clooney should be flush with adoring fans. His movie star good looks endure, and he’s clearly a thoughtful star who won’t let private matters upstage his career. He’s a father now, settled down and seemingly at marital bliss.
Yet other stars endure over the years thanks, in part, to a nagging populist streak. There’s no better example than Clint Eastwood.
The movie legend is still packing theaters well into his 80s, witness his 2018 hit “The Mule.” He’s navigated changing mores, fashions and the digital revolution as well as any actor might. Through it all he’s chosen projects that often speak to his audience directly, be it “American Sniper” or “Sully” in recent years.
Tom Hanks, a few years old than Clooney at 64, similarly found a way to keep his star shining over more than three decades on the big screen.
Clooney, for all his brains and industry savvy, hasn’t managed that feat. In fact, this recent interview suggests Clooney is reaching out to the Twitter crowd, not mainstream America, to promote “Sky.”
“I got the script way before the pandemic, but still there were all these other elements,” Clooney says. “There’s the denying of climate change but also the idea of how hateful it’s become, how race and all these other things that are tinderboxes in our country really just require anybody to throw a match in it. That’s why I was drawn to the story, because if you play that kind of hatred out over a 20-year period of time, it’s not inconceivable that we destroy ourselves.”
Clooney’s liberal bona fides keep him in the cultural conversation despite his declining film slate. He routinely weighs in on hot button political matters, giving far-left journalists the material they crave.
It keeps his name alive, but not in the way a great movie does.
Clooney can’t be blamed for living at a time when “movie stars” no longer run Hollywood. The industry thrives on franchises, sequels and superhero fare, not big names like Clooney, Streep and Pitt. We know too much about today’s stars. They’re no longer special, nor do they have the benefit of a studio system navigating their every career turn.
Plus, their aggressive political stances alienate some fans, sometimes for good.
The movie game is different now, and Clooney’s incredible shrinking status is Exhibit A, B and C.