If you count his voice work in the animated film The Fantastic Mr. Fox, there are currently three films starring George Clooney in the theaters this holiday. I've seen the two live action films, Grant Heslov's The Men Who Stare At Goats and Jason Reitman's Up In The Air, currently playing in limited release in a total of 72 theaters across the country.
Grant Heslov is Clooney's partner in his production company, and occasionally appears on the other side of the camera, as in Leatherheads and Good Night, and Good Luck. Like Good Night, and Good Luck, The Men Who Stare At Goats has a lot more star power than most films do these days. Besides Clooney, the cast includes Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor and Kevin Spacey, all actors who have had their names above the title in movies made in the past view years.
The Men Who Stare At Goats is based on a true story, which means you can't really trust much of what happens in the film. That said, the premise of the movie, which seems preposterous, is actually true. The Army did research into using paranormal powers as weapons, and much of this research took place in Northern California in the 1970s and 1980s. The story takes place mostly in present day Iraq, as reporter Bob Wilton (McGregor) catches up with Lyn Cassady (Clooney), formerly a shining star in the Army's First Earth Battalion, now a contractor looking for work in the war zone.
Some negative reviews of Goats want to make it out to be the next Ishtar or Waterworld, but I can't agree. It's a comedy. I laughed. The plot held up and I cared about the characters. My own personal experience certainly informs how I feel about it, as several family members have been involved in different aspects of the New Age movement with varying levels of intensity. The ideas of the extent of human abilities discussed in the film seem just as odd to me as they would to most of the public, but unlike most of the public, this wasn't the first time I had heard of such things. Clooney plays a serious person trying to do the right thing, even though most of us can't take his seriousness seriously.
In Up In The Air, actor Clooney is a hired gun, and interviews I've read online make it clear that the director wants this to be thought of as a Jason Reitman film and not a George Clooney film. Reitman also directed Thank You For Smoking and Juno, and the producers of the film are hoping that it will get some consideration at the Oscars.
Like many movies made these days, Up In The Air has a single movie star and a supporting cast. The cast is good and some are recognizable, like Jason Bateman from Arrested Development as Clooney's boss and cameo roles by J.K. Simmons and Sam Elliot. The two roles with the most screen time other than Clooney are the young woman who is new at his firm, played by Anna Kendrick, and the woman Clooney meets in a hotel bar, played by Vera Farmiga. Both actresses do excellent work in the film, but a movie with a higher budget might have had Anne Hathaway or Natalie Portman in the younger role and Cate Blanchett or Catherine Zeta-Jones in the older role.
As in Thank You For Smoking, the main character is a scumbag we are supposed to root for. Clooney's character Ryan Bingham fires people for a living. The argument the film makes is that he is not a scumbag because the real scumbags are the cowards that hire his company. Another scummy person we are supposed to like less than we like Bingham is the young woman played by Kendrick, who wants to take the personal touch out of the equation and have the company perform the mass firings over a computer link.
There is a major plot point in Up In The Air that is less believable than anything in The Men Who Stare At Goats. Bingham, corporate hatchet man, is also a motivational speaker. His pitch is that people should live more like he does, without any attachments. That someone might try to pitch this at a motivational seminar is somewhat believable. That this message would be something that would get to Tony Robbins' levels of popularity is not.
Living without attachments is akin to the Buddhist ideal, but Bingham is no Siddhartha. He lives out of hotel rooms and he loves it. His true goal for enlightenment is to get as many frequent flyer miles as possible. He hates coming home, where his apartment is like a hotel room with crappy service.
The plot revolves around Bingham's existential plight. Will he become more connected to the people around him? The movie has twists and turns and doesn't always end up where you might expect, but in some ways, just like in Thank You For Smoking, the plot doesn't matter because the movie cheats so badly. At the end, the characters have money and they look like George Clooney or Aaron Eckhart. However the movie ends, this wouldn't be the end for the character, and the particular high or low point he finds himself at when the credits roll is just another moment in his life, not a new beginning.
For my money, both movies were worth seeing, though I felt Goats was under-rated and Up In The Air somewhat over-rated. If you want to see Clooney play a conflicted man in a scummy corporate situation, Michael Clayton is head and shoulders above Up In The Air, but the comparison may not be completely fair since one is a comedy and the other a drama.