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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Were moviegoers bamboozled into seeing George Clooney in 'The American'?

September 7, 2010 | 12:03 pm

George_clooney If you haven't heard already, the George Clooney film "The American" has the dubious distinction of being the No. 1 movie at the box office this weekend despite having received an abysmal grade of D minus from CinemaScore, which tracks the reaction of rank-and-file moviegoers to the latest films. Even worse, as my colleague Ben Fritz noted in his box-office report, the film's target audience -- adults older than 25, who made up 88% of the audience, gave it an F.

I can't say I was surprised by the moviegoer reaction, since the agonizingly slow-moving film was made by Anton Corbijn, the Dutch filmmaker who was best known for directing such upbeat fare as Metallica videos and "Control," a dark portrait of Joy Division's lead singer Ian Curtis, who committed suicide at age 23. Of course, the average moviegoer didn't do an IMDB search before heading off to see "The American." They were propelled into theaters by Clooney's cool-guy image and the film's slick TV spots, which sold the picture as a taut, "Michael Clayton"-style thriller.

Of course, there's more action in the film's trailer than in virtually the entire movie. But when you're a Hollywood marketer, if you have a lemon, you make lemonade. Focus Features could have taken a more conventional approach, debuting the picture at a film festival and giving it a platform release, hoping that Clooney's star power and a few good reviews (after all, the film did get a decent 61 score from Rotten Tomatoes) might scare up some business.

But Focus must have realized from its early screenings that "The American" had little crowd-pleasing appeal. It was an art-house movie all the way. So they cooked up a batch of TV spots that made the film look like a snazzy thriller, played them incessantly on programs with older-guy appeal (like baseball games, which is where I witnessed the advertising bombardment) and gave the film a wide release, figuring they'd get as many moviegoers as possible before word spread that, in terms of Clooney films, this one had a lot more in common with "The Good German" than "Ocean's Eleven." 

Does that make Focus bad guys? Not really. They did what they had to do to get the biggest possible audience for a not especially commercial film. If anyone gets hurt, it will be Clooney, who now has another movie under his belt (joining "The Good German," "Leatherheads" and "The Men Who Stare at Goats") that severely underwhelmed his audience. They would prefer to see him be a modern-day Cary Grant, not an older version of Ryan Gosling. I don't think that makes Clooney a bad guy either. He's an actor who likes to take risks. And plenty of them have paid off, including "Good Night, and Good Luck," "Syriana" and "Up in the Air." After all, moviegoers may have thought "The American" was a total snooze, but nothing could be a bigger snooze than playing Danny Ocean your entire life.

Photo: George Clooney in the new film "The American." Credit: Giles Keyte / Focus Features/Associated Press.

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