George Clooney’s road warrior can learn a thing or two from the female animals around him.
George Clooney: ladies’ man, man’s man, man about town. We know the image and we know it well. We know he’s the Sexiest Man Alive. We know he likes to hang out with his pals and shoot hoops. We know he has a fabulous villa in Italy where he entertains those pals and various lady friends. We know he’s quite happily unmarried, just as we know he’s quite dedicated to his politics and global charitable endeavors. And if we’ve been paying attention to his movies, we know that he loves nothing better than tweaking, twitting, bending, erasing, and questioning that image, especially if it’s in the name of Art and/or Acting. He’s the early 21st century version of storied 1970s rascal Warren Beatty, complete with a roster of left-field films to go with his lovable rogue persona, signaling that beneath the hedonist surface resides a serious man. Maybe. Somewhere.
It’s no surprise, then, that the 48-year-old Clooney’s most hailed Autumn 2009 cinematic offerings are about nothing less than what it might mean to be that adult, silver-haired man when he’d really rather be footloose and fancy free. After all, as Anna Kendrick’s pert young Natalie bluntly observes in Up in the Air of Clooney’s flight master Ryan, “He’s old.” The knowing joke is that age means nothing for a fantastic fox like Clooney off screen. The joke’s subsequent story fallout in both Up in the Air and Fantastic Mr. Fox, however, is that it should mean as much to him as it does to the women who share his life. A serious man is also a responsible adult—even Warren Beatty figured that one out. Up in the Air’s astonishingly perceptive (and funny) scene in which Vera Farmiga’s older and wiser Alex schools naïve Natalie about men is instructive in this regard. Whereas Natalie has a vivid mental picture of her perfect man and plans for their perfect life, Alex the voice of experience observes that as she’s gotten on in years, her primary requirement for a man is that he’s “not an asshole.” You can almost see the thought bubble pop up over Ryan’s head: “Am I an asshole? I’m not…wait…maybe….” A few scenes later, Natalie makes it clear to Ryan that his narcissistic “empty backpack” life philosophy, wherein the heavy burden of relationships is to be strenuously avoided, leads to asshole behavior regardless of whether he is in fact an asshole. In other words, he’s old enough to know better and an ass if he doesn’t.
In its own whimsical, wry Wes Anderson way, Fantastic Mr. Fox makes the same incisive observation about Clooney’s Mr. Fox. This time, however, Clooney is a family fox, making the stakes a bit higher in the responsibility department. Still, riven by a self-proclaimed “existential” crisis over whether a fox is still a fox if he doesn’t have a chicken in his teeth, Mr. Fox is determined to pull off one last poultry heist. The result is chaos and destruction of epic, small animal-scale proportions. His entire world, and everyone in it, ends up literally in the sewer because of his stubborn desire to relive his freewheeling youth complete with bandit hats. Nice. He doesn’t even quite grasp the gravity of the situation until Mrs. Fox—speaking in the honeyed erudite tones of Meryl Streep—opens his eyes with her assertion that she can’t be with him anymore. She knows quite well that he’s a “wild animal,” but even she has her limits. It’s time for Mr. Fox to grow up and realize he’s not the only critter living within raiding distance of the nefarious Bunce, Boggis, and Bean.
Had either film stopped there, though, they would both be little more than Clooney getting a wrist slap for being a charming, chronically immature bastard. That’s fine, but it’s not especially interesting or enlightening for all involved. In order to truly become that adult, Foxy Ryan has to grasp that the women around him also may not fit neatly into the slots he finds so confining (what a concept), yet they try to deal with it instead of, well, fly over it. Kudos to director/co-writer Jason Reitman for a) making Natalie and Alex’s own dilemmas variations on the dilemma that starts to beset Ryan and b) actually giving the female characters dilemmas at all. Up in the Air may ultimately be the Ryan/Clooney show, but as in the above scene between Alex, Natalie and Ryan, the women also get their meaningful spotlight moments. Ryan’s nemesis-turned-protégée Natalie at first seems like she might be a perfect candidate to become a female Ryan after she’s thoroughly burned by that perfect man and eventually follows through on her original wish to move to San Francisco. When her prospective new boss asks her why she even went to Omaha and Ryan’s company, she sheepishly admits that she “followed a boy”—an apposite term for someone who’d dump her via text message. Now, however, she’s all about her own goals, complete with a glowing recommendation from Ryan to help her get there. Nevertheless, the work-related event that directly spurs Natalie to quit and go west, along with her sharp indictment of Ryan’s empty backpack immaturity, suggest that she still has the capacity for deep emotional connections despite her setbacks. She may not have the ersatz “humanity” that enables Ryan to do his job as a corporate hatchet man so well, but she has something better: the inner resources to process what happens to her and evolve. She has the proverbial heart.
In contrast to the chastened yet strong Natalie, Ryan’s potential love Alex reveals herself to be a more extreme embodiment of Ryan in how she strictly, i.e. heartlessly, divides her travels from her domestic existence. While this makes her become the rather tiresome stereotype of the female devil in a satin blouse, it does also emphasize that she’s just as capable as Ryan of appreciating and desiring the license afforded by an airborne life. She and Ryan are a matched set of platinum card-carrying road warriors. Still, she grasps that there is something fundamentally “unreal” about that life, whereas Ryan doesn’t. For him, the connection they make is genuine (perhaps because it’s impossible except in the realm of the recycled air unreal). When he tries to bring it down to earth, though, he gets a brutal lesson in how Alex navigates her existence between the freedom she enjoys and the grounded-ness she needs. She is the ultimate interpersonal pragmatist because she doesn’t want to jettison the relationships that matter most. For her, Ryan is just an alluring George Clooney fantasy figure of zero attachment who needs to grow up and realize that he’s made himself into that emotionally empty being. It’s his fault that he doesn’t know the real rules of the game and where his playing piece fits.
Mrs. Fox has a similar lesson for Mr. Fox, although she’s a tad more compassionate in how she goes about it (they are, after all, adorable stop-motion fuzzy animals). We already know from the film’s first of many gleefully executed action sequences that in her childless youth, she was Mr. Fox’s nimble partner in vulpine crime. She stopped the shenanigans when she had their child, and (naturally) expected Foxy to do the same. She comes back from the brink of splitting up with Mr. Fox over his disastrous fall off the respectable life wagon, however, because she understands something crucial about herself, as well as all of their equally beset animal neighbors. As she says to Mr. Fox, “We’re all wild animals”—a deceptively simple statement that speaks worlds regarding how she may feel about the existential fox compromises she too has had to make. As with Alex and Ryan, Mrs. Fox is just as capable of running wild as Mr. Fox, as long as the moment’s right. And run she does, as well as dig and Frug and join in the general wild animal craziness that becomes the communal last stand against the creatures’ evil human nemeses. Foxy isn’t the only one who might enjoy raising a little cuss sometimes. He just needs to know when to do it, and to not do it alone.
Of course the climactic mission by Fox and his friends works, and restores Mr. Fox to his fantastic status among his family and community. This time, however, it’s an exalted state that comes from his ability to embrace the different kinds of wildness embodied by his wife, child and cohorts, instead of just his gift for pulling off crazy, high-flying schemes. He’s better off as a fox among foxes, rather than being a lone wolf. Otherwise, he’d probably wind up like Ryan, adrift in a relationship vacuum of his own making, wondering where he’ll fly next and what it’s all about and if any of it matters at all without any fellow wild animals to share that ride.
Or if he’s George Clooney, he’ll just go hang out in his villa in Italy and wait for Oscar season.
Guy Movies is a biweekly analysis of machismo cinema from the perspective of a woman.