Few actors inspire swooning devotion the way George Clooney does. It's not just "I'm going to check out something he does because I find him interesting" but also full-on, follow-every-last-detail-in-his-life obsession. Even though -- or maybe because -- the actor's personal life is shrouded in such mystery, these fans take a fervent interest in all that Clooney does. A friend who is one such Clooneyist demands, upon our return from a film festival, that we share with her even the smallest Clooney tidbit. (This applies even when neither Clooney nor one of his films are at the festival.)
Clooney's box-office problem, we've been told over the years, is that there simply are not enough of these devotees. Which is why so many of his starring vehicles have wound up performing modestly. Those who turn out to see them do so with gusto. But box-office totals aren't measured by desire, and so the movies take in only middling amounts.
That explanation is fine, as far it goes, and in a way was proven again this weekend when Clooney's latest, the dark spy film "The American," opened to $13.1 million over the standard three-day weekend,
$16.4 million if you toss in Labor Day. Those numbers are in line with his last few wide openings, whose three-day totals clocked in at $12.7 million ("The Men Who Stare at Goats"), $12.7 million again ("Leatherheads") and $12.5 million ("Intolerable Cruelty.") (Ensemble films, such as "Burn After Reading" and the "Ocean's Eleven" pictures, have opened stronger, though those are buoyed, of course, by the presence of many other stars. And limited releases, such as "Up in the Air" and "Good Night and Good Luck," are different animals entirely.)
What continues to baffle, however, is something that goes beyond the dollar totals. It turns out that the hard-core cadre of Clooney fans who reliably turn out to these films on opening weekend don't especially like what they see. Their love of the man may draw them to theaters, but once they get there, they're not particularly happy they came.
That trend was brutally on display with "The American," which drew a pitiful CinemaScore of D-, one of the lowest of the year for any wide opener not named "Splice." (Actually, that's not true either -- "Splice" at least pulled a D.) And the grade for "The American" is hardly an anomaly: Over the last few years, Clooney's wide openers -- the best test for a megastar -- have routinely been handed poor marks by audiences. Clooney's screwball football comedy "Leatherheads" managed just a C from CinemaScore voters. In 2002, Clooney's "Solaris" remake earned a rare CinemaScore distinction, the kind you don't want: an F. And it's not just those surveyed by the research firm: Last year's military spoof "The Men Who Stare at Goats" drew just a C+ from Box Office Mojo readers.
It would be one thing if Clooney's movies were grossing $50 million or $60 million over their opening weekends and landing these bad grades; that would mean they're catching a lot of non-Clooney fans in their nets, and so mediocre marks would be understandable. But these movies are attracting not the masses but the the small group that loves him. So why do so many of them dislike what they see?
Clooney and his reps might argue that these tough marks are a function of the actor's adventurous choices. Do what Adam Sandler does, and you'll never disappoint your fan base, because you're never really challenging them. But take some chances, and fans, at least a certain percentage of them, will be confounded. They want the light, charming Clooney of late-night talk shows, not the dark antiheroes of "The American" or "Michael Clayton" (the latter of which garnered a decent but not overwheming B grade from Box Office Mojo readers). When they don't get it, they give a movie a weak grade. (Of course, the simpler explanation is that the choices are not so much adventurous as wobbly; a number of these films received poor-to-middling critical responses too.)
But there may be something subtler at work here. The CinemaScore system is a strange beast. Even in the overall grade, it asks respondents to grade what they just watched, sure. But since many filmgoers are coming to a movie because of a given actor, it also implicitly asks them to determine whether their motivation was valid. And it's here that Clooney runs into trouble.The actor may inspire devotion -- too much devotion -- so that the Clooney on the screen never matches up to the Clooney in filmgoers' minds. Audiences urgently want to know more about the man, but his film roles never give it to them. He is a victim, essentially, of his own high Q Score.
What's remarkable is that even though audiences don't as a rule like Clooney's films, they continue to love him. You'd think that after being disappointed by one of his movies too many times, they'd turn on the actor. But he continues to score high in popularity tests, coming in close behind the beloved Tom Hanks and running neck and neck with much bigger box-office performers such as Sandler and Will Smith, even as his movies generate much less appeal. Which we suppose is liberating for Clooney, even if the studios who collaborate with him may feel less enthused.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: George Clooney in "The American." Credit: Focus Features
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