Clooney could well have his own campaign to oversee in the coming months, since buzz about his performance in Michael Clayton has raised talk of another Oscar nod. In the film, he plays the titular “fixer” in a powerful New York law firm who is charged with mopping up messes made by the firm’s wealthy clients. He’s a divorced, heavily indebted burnout case with a gambling problem—a far cry from the dashing dazzlers Clooney is known for playing.
That Michael Clayton has been more popular among critics than at the box office underscores one quirk of Clooney’s career. As a recent story in the Los Angeles Times noted under the headline his box office isn’t pretty, his more serious projects have failed to attract crowds. While the Ocean’s trilogy has earned $426 million, Syriana made just under $51 million and Good Night, and Good Luck just over $31 million. Last year’s The Good German sank under bad reviews and was an outright failure with a paltry $1.3 million take. Still, Jeff Robinov, the head of film production at Warner Bros., where the Clooney–Steven Soderbergh production company Section Eight had a deal until the partners closed shop last year, dismisses the notion that Clooney has anything to answer for. “What would your expectations be for Good Night, and Good Luck, which is a black and white period film?” asks Robinov, who points out that Syriana was, from the outset, “180 degrees” away from the commercial intent of Ocean’s. “I look at Syriana and say, ‘What more could you have hoped for?’ It met our box-office expectations, and he won an Academy Award.” Grant Heslov, Clooney’s friend of 25 years with whom he recently cofounded a new production company, Smoke House, explains that although Clooney could make “loads of cash” if that’s all he cared about, he’s more concerned with his legacy at this point. “He doesn’t ask himself, ‘Am I going to be paid?’” Heslov says, “but, ‘Did I stick my neck out? Did I take a chance?’” Leatherheads, Smoke House’s first film, does take a jag away from Clooney’s recent work, back toward earlier comic roles. It is also the first time that Clooney and Zellweger appear together in a movie, although at this point it’s still too early to know how convincingly they portray a screen romance. At the time of this interview, a final cut of the film, due out next spring, was not available, but Clooney did bring a few snippets with him—on his iPhone—to show Zellweger.
“Here we go,” Clooney says. “This is my favorite barroom brawl.”
“Oh, that’s so cool,” Zellweger squeals, marveling at the technology. “I can’t make a call on mine.”