Film Review: ‘Tomorrowland’

Tomorrowland George Clooney
Courtesy of Disney

Brad Bird's science-fiction adventure runs heavier on canned inspirationalism than on actual inspiration.

In his Pixar triumphs “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” writer-director Brad Bird proved himself not just a wizardly storyteller but also an ardent champion of excellence — of intelligence, creativity and nonconformity — in every arena of human (and rodent) accomplishment. All the more disappointing, then, that the forces of mediocrity have largely prevailed over “Tomorrowland,” a kid-skewing adventure saga that, for all its initial narrative intrigue and visual splendor, winds up feeling like a hollow, hucksterish Trojan horse of a movie — the shiny product of some smiling yet sinister dimension where save-the-world impulses and Disney mass-branding strategies collide. A sort of “Interstellar Jr.” in which the fate of humanity hinges on our ability to nurture young hearts and minds, the picture runs heavier on canned inspirationalism than on actual inspiration, which won’t necessarily keep it from drawing a hefty summer audience with its family-friendly elements, topnotch production values, Imax rollout, endless tie-in potential and a top-billed George Clooney.

There’s something to be said, of course, for a big-budget studio entertainment sly enough to retain a proper sense of mystery over its story and concept; much of the early buzz around “Tomorrowland” has swirled around the question of what it’s about — and exactly how much it has to do with its namesake neighborhood at Disneyland. With one mercifully brief, tongue-in-cheek exception, scribes Bird and Damon Lindelof (who together conceived the story with Jeff Jensen) avoid exploiting such theme-park attractions as Space Mountain, Star Tours and the dearly departed PeopleMover; if anything, their vision of Tomorrowland draws more heavily on Epcot Center, the ultimate representation of Walt Disney’s guiding belief in science and technology as a force for good in the world.

Few filmmakers would seem as ideally suited to honor that utopian ideal as Bird, who previously tapped into the enterprising, anything-is-possible ethos of 1950s-’60s America in movies like “The Incredibles,” with its snazzy, retro-futuristic aesthetics, and “The Iron Giant,” with its sweet, resonant treatment of Cold War anxieties. And there are setpieces in “Tomorrowland” — a famous international landmark that suddenly bursts open like a Faberge egg, or an ordinary-looking house that turns out to have so many gizmos, pulleys, booby traps and escape pods it might have been designed by Wallace and Gromit — which duly explode with a welcome sense of invention and limitless possibility (most of it springing from Scott Chambliss’ wondrous production design). But these moments are relatively few and far between — separated across long stretches of clunky storytelling, overbearing action and tiresome character interplay, and undermined by a narrative that never delivers the surge of escapist excitement seemingly promised at the outset.

Striking a worrisome note early on is an overly cutesy framing device that introduces two narrators who can’t stop arguing over how to tell their respective stories. The first of these is Frank Walker (Clooney), a curmudgeonly scientist who recounts how, as a young boy (played by Thomas Robinson), he attended the 1964 New York World’s Fair with his first big invention, a jet pack that (sort of) gives its wearer the power of flight. Dismissed by a supercilious judge (Hugh Laurie), Frank manages to attract the interest of a sly, watchful young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who hands him a small lapel pin marked with the letter “T.” One bumpy elevator ride later, Frank finds himself deposited in Tomorrowland, a city of towering robots and sleek, ivory-toned buildings, where one’s imagination can presumably run wild.

But before we can learn why Frank was brought to Tomorrowland and what he accomplished there, the film abruptly shifts to the present day. Our second narrator, Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), is an extremely bright young woman in her 20s who lives with her father (Tim McGraw) and her little brother (Pierce Gagnon) in the shadow of the NASA station in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Like Frank before her, Casey boasts such keen intelligence and scientific acumen that she, too, receives a mysterious “T” pin; whenever (and only whenever) she touches it, she’s suddenly whisked off to Tomorrowland, necessitating several seamless, rapid-fire shifts in scenery. It’s the film’s niftiest visual trick, as well as a prelude to the one setpiece here that feels honestly transporting: an extended tracking shot in which we follow Casey on a monorail ride through the city, reveling in every otherworldly detail. (The context-free synchronized diving routine is a particular treat.)

But Casey’s trip is short-lived. After about two minutes of enraptured sight-seeing, she’s unceremoniously returned home, leaving her desperate to find her way back. By this point the viewer is likely to understand all too well how she feels, as “Tomorrowland” increasingly suggests a version of “The Wizard of Oz” that, despite numerous attempts at liftoff, never quite manages makes it over the rainbow. Indeed, Casey herself comes to resemble a sort of reverse Dorothy Gale figure — one eager to leave her humdrum existence, not return to it — as she hits the road and tries to find out who gave her the now-defunct pin. It’s not long before she finds her answer in the form of the mysteriously ageless Athena, who, with typically well-meaning vagueness, warns our heroine that she is in grave danger.

What little sense of wonder remains at this point is decisively zapped away when “Tomorrowland” suddenly morphs into a paranoid thriller/road movie, where danger lurks noisily behind every bend, as signaled by the busy workings of Michael Giacchino’s score. Athena persuades Casey to pay a visit to the cranky, hermitlike Frank, whom the android leaders of Tomorrowland banished years ago for making a startling discovery about the world’s impending doom. It’s here that the “Interstellar” connection kicks in, complete with (surrogate) father-daughter bond, as Casey’s inherent optimism becomes the necessary counterweight to Frank’s pessimism in the battle to save mankind. It’s here, too, that the film reveals its intent as a humanitarian/ecological call to arms, delivering an attack on widespread cynicism and apathy.

These are weighty, provocative, worthwhile themes to implant in a PG-rated family film, but the glaring failure of “Tomorrowland” is that its central premise — children are the future — is almost completely negated by the preachiness of the execution and the clumsiness of the storytelling. This is not, frankly, a movie that evinces much faith in the cognitive and imaginative powers of young people. Its attitude toward the tykes in the audience can be more or less summed up by the aggressively cheeky interplay between Clooney and Robertson, and by the blunt, often poorly motivated chase/action sequences (none of which rise to the level of Bird’s previous live-action feature, “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol”).

There is, perhaps, something almost perversely admirable about a movie called “Tomorrowland” that spends so little time in Tomorrowland, effectively treating that storied kingdom less as an actual place than as a state of mind. Still, it’s hard not to feel cheated, or to wonder if it was Lindelof, still best known for his work as a showrunner on “Lost,” who effectively turned this movie into such an evasive and unsatisfying game of narrative keepaway — one whose final revelations are dispensed in haste, and with a frustrating lack of rigor.

Indeed, for all its insistence on the rational, the picture at times gives off a bizarre, faux-spiritual vibe — not least in the recurring shots of the golden wheat fields outside Tomorrowland, which look so vast and ripe, they might have been filmed by Terrence Malick. (Claudio Miranda is credited with the cinematography, which looks particularly lustrous in Imax projection.) These images figure prominently in the film’s jaw-droppingly misguided final scene, a calculated bid for we-are-the-world sentimentality that plays out with the mildly unsettling overtones and forced multiculturalism of a cult recruitment video. Is this Tomorrowland or Heaven’s Gate?

Robertson, who bears an apt resemblance to Brit Marling, is thoroughly winning in her first major starring role, even if we must take Casey’s much-vaunted brainpower on confidence (a montage of her raising her hand repeatedly in class is the script’s convenient way of signaling “She’s smart!” without actually giving her anything smart to do or say). And the surprise of the picture may well be the young English actress Cassidy, giving a small wonder of a performance that balances humor and poignancy in a deliberately narrow range. Comedy fans will smile — briefly, anyway — at the sight of Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn as a pair of geek enthusiasts who run a Houston shop crammed with classic sci-fi movie memorabilia (cue obligatory nod to the recently Disney-acquired “Star Wars” franchise).

Clooney seems to have been cast as much for his liberal credentials as for his star power, and it’s a choice that can’t help but leave a somewhat smug aftertaste; he’s almost too fitting a spokesman for a movie that urges humanity to end all wars, take responsibility for the environment, and foster a greater, more alert engagement with the world around us. All worthy and admirable objectives, to be sure, but they can’t help but feel like platitudes in the absence of an adventure that compels and sustains dramatic interest on its own terms. Even when delivered with the best intentions, a lecture is a wretched substitute for wonder.

Film Review: 'Tomorrowland'

Reviewed at TCL Chinese Theatre, Hollywood, May 6, 2015. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 129 MIN.

Production

A Walt Disney Motion Pictures Studios release of an A113 production. Produced by Damon Lindelof, Brad Bird, Jeffrey Chernov. Executive producers, Bernard Bellew, Brigham Taylor.

Crew

Directed by Brad Bird. Screenplay, Damon Lindelof, Bird; story, Lindelof, Bird, Jeff Jensen. Camera (color, Sony CineAlta digital, Imax), Claudio Miranda; editors, Walter Murch, Craig Wood; music, Michael Giacchino; production designer, Scott Chambliss; supervising art director, Ramsey Avery; costume designer, Jeffrey Kurland; sound, David Husby; supervising sound editor, Gwendolyn Yates Whittle; re-recording mixer, Juan Peralta; visual effects supervisors, Craig Hammack, Eddie Pasquarello, John Knoll; visual effects and animation, Industrial Light & Magic; supervising stunt coordinator, Robert Alonzo; co-stunt coordinator, Joey Box; associate producer, Debbi Bossi; casting, April Webster, Alyssa Weisberg.

With

George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Robinson, Pierce Gagnon, Chris Bauer. (English, French dialogue)

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  1. LRV says:

    Disney what were you thinking! There is no storyline to this movie, it is LONG and BORING The acting is horrible and George Clooney in a children’s movie was a train wreck, he looked so uncomfortable and definatly not a natural when it comes to interacting with children. Why the cursing in the movie, was it necessary?

    Tomorrowland fooled us with the name Disney associated with it…absolutely the worst movie we have seen in a long time! Money wasted!!

  2. PG says:

    The school montage was not signalling “smart,” but “questioning” and above-all “optimistic”. “Smart” came from remote control video interference and fixing her Dad’s machine.

    In any case, it was her *positivity* and sense of optimism/wonder that made her the key figure she was.

    The final scenes were not “forced multiculturalism,” but a signal of newfound inclusivity – the film had until then been about the elite and the few; by the end, the realization was that being exclusive and restrictive was what had caused/exacerbated the problems of Tomorrowland.

    Heavyhanded, metaphorical and a little preachy, maybe. But no more inaccurate for it. There was one (ONE!) ‘Preachy’ speech, and even it was (as noted here) less about the evils in the world and who caused them than the widespread apathy and “let someone else do it” short-term thinking that is clearly every bit the problem in our world that it was in theirs.

  3. Tammy Kolii says:

    This movie was very entertaining and the kids loved it. Funny how anything that shines a light on positivism, the importance of intellect, science and conscientiousness is considered Liberal Propaganda. Just proves the point of this movie. Bye curmudgeons the rest of the world is leaving you behind!

  4. DM says:

    I WAS waiting with anticipation for this movie after seeing the trailers and what I saw and the kids saw really shocked and disappointed me and scared the little ones.
    Yes I know all about the troubles of this world and the evil people do to each other; yet this from DISNEY?
    I can hear the ground quaking with him spinning in his grave.
    Walt Disney and Disneyland is all about or was wonder and fantasy. Happiness and joy..
    Walt Disney shared the possible future to us the world in his creations.
    The current “Disney” Corporation has gone far from that vision.
    Do we not see enough warrant less KILLING in the “Real” world today to go and see a “Disney” movie and see more warrant less killing?
    You should have been there when the kids screamed when the three cops were arbitrarily incinerated by “killer” Android robots in full CGI Glory in big clouds of black smoke.
    Yes I and others know we have “eco” problems in this world and yes people are working to correct that; BUT to spend allot of money to see a movie that is far from the “trailer” hype to doom and gloom end of the world.
    Disney WHAT WERE YOU THINKING TO GREEN LIGHT THIS GARBAGE..

    • JC says:

      I can hear the ground quaking with him spinning in his grave.
      Walt Disney and Disneyland is all about or was wonder and fantasy. Happiness and joy..
      Walt Disney shared the possible future to us the world in his creations

      BEAUTIFULLY SAID

    • PG says:

      You saw “incineration” and smoke; we saw ‘trans-dimensional warp’ and people not being killed but being shifted in space. No screams in our theater either (and, interesting, the children with us were more concerned with the uncanny valley and harm to people-like androids – the villains were “people” too – than the ambiguosly-vanished officials).

      Disney is about wonder, fantasy, enjoyment, joy, true – also awareness, responsibility, optimism for the future rooted in practicality in the present: and that was all on display here. The basic message was “ignoring problems will create worse ones; optimism and EFFORT will create the perfect future we can acchieve together.” Very Disney, very true. But actively ignored by so many, in so many ways day after day after day.

      Hugh Laurie’s character’s frustrations with people expecting *someone else* to fix the problems they choose to ignore was well-founded (if, admittedly, heavy-handed). But if people won’t listen to reason or facts delivered calmly or enthusiastically or worriedly or angrily… maybe a sledgehammer approach would be a bit better. Except that that often fails, too, as it’s “preachy” and “politically-motivated”.

  5. pj says:

    I’d just like to point out the fact that the writer of this review clearly fell asleep through the beginning where Casey attends high school. What 20 year old shares a room with their prepubescent brother abd gets reprimanded by her father for sneaking out of the house?

  6. Paully says:

    I’ve seen this before at Variety.. A group of ( paid?) Tea Party comments flood the legit comment section. Someone who never goes to the movies (stated) in 20 years .. Of course he is a regular reader of Variety.. Not.. I’m guessing the break room at Breitbart. Or perhaps a Ted Cruz supporters group. This was a put up job on the comments obviously..

    • kenjimoto says:

      Drudge, apparently.

      • Sam America says:

        I’m not being paid you brainwashed liberal hack! technology is destroying not only
        the human race but the youth’s brains with their iphones video games and electronic devices!
        I see kids who can’t even take their eyes and hands off their phones at work! they can’t even
        communicate with co workers or consumers! they have no responsibility or morals or respect!
        so go back to your progressive propaganda!

  7. J.Means says:

    Clooney should just make “Oh Brother, Where Art T II and III” and then call it a day.

  8. Mantle Head says:

    A patronizing political statement masquerading as storytelling…

  9. Just a guy says:

    Clooney is generally one of the most over-hyped faces out of the lala land that is Hollywood. Wouldn’t waste my money. Tomorrowland will be free on Comcast soon enough…

  10. manyland says:

    I’ll never know….Clooney does not get any of my hard earned money no matter how good the show is.

  11. So it aint worth downloading your saying…………………

  12. Penswordman says:

    We are living in a highly tainted world lately. So many things lack substance and quality. WHAT, is responsible for this tainting? Hmmmmm….

  13. Sandy Muller says:

    Agenda! Agenda! Agenda! Libs are the new nazis. Think just like THEM or perish. They preach tolerance but are the most intolerant people in North America. News flash! The world doesn’t want to COEXIST w/ America’s liberals it wants to KILL them. Clooney again. Ugh! A few days ago he was handcuffed to the shockingly liberal David Letterman as a television skit. I really wish as Letterman goes away he would take the ever smug Clooney with him. Brad Bird is one of the great talents working today which adds to the heartbreak of this review.

    • kenjimoto says:

      I know, the world has gone downhill ever since the Jews started rounding up Nazis in Germany. And all those KKK guys lynched in the South. It’s getting so you just can’t kill, I mean, trust anybody anymore.

  14. Traci Wells says:

    Anything that the Liberal Loon Clooney stars in, is not worth seeing – Total trash!!

  15. John Diamond says:

    Another leftwing diatribe posing as a movie? NO thanks. No matter how many times Hollywood tries these propaganda pieces they fail miserably. Millions lost over the years simply to put forth an anti American, anti Capitalist and anti republican agenda. Sorry Hollywood, you have been playing this same script for decades and America is not interested.

  16. mikey1109 says:

    I will not be wasting my money on this one. Suffering through the preview was more than enough for me.

    • PG says:

      Presuming you didn’t deliberately seek out the trailer, what movie(s) did you see that it was paired with…?

  17. Bob Thebobster says:

    Sounds like the lib’s version of Galt’s Gulch.

  18. Jim Wood says:

    Once I saw that Tim McGraw was in this flick, my decision to NOT see it was made.

  19. Jim Gajewski says:

    well what do you expect from someone who supports hillary

  20. charlesamiller says:

    Once more, Disney sucks.

  21. eggmann says:

    Too bad. I was hoping for a good Disney movie. Clooney being in it couldn’t have helped.

  22. woodNfish says:

    I knew the movie was crap as soon as I saw the calving glacier. This is just another shrill eco-whackjob movie with “stupid” as a plot and “even dumber” for dialogue. Only someone who wants their kids indoctrinated into the whacko Leftist theology of environmentalism is going to pay to let their kids see this propagandized drivel.

    • kenjimoto says:

      Yeah, ’cause what could be dumber than teaching your kids to love their planet? Calving glaciers—screw them! The world filled with people of all color and types, and it’s important to get those children to hate and fear all the things that make you scared and small. So, good job so far!

  23. Dan says:

    Sorry. I’m bored of the reused plot about one person (majority of the time it’s some kid) destined to save the world something similar. I do’t think George is good at acting, it’s like he plays himself in movies (i.e. Ocean’s movies, Interstellar, etc.)

  24. John Galt says:

    Damon Lindelof! Explains it all. Remember that whatever the big important reveal is is a head fake and has no point just as I’m sure this whole movie has no point except to sell tickets to DisneyWorld/Land. Come to think of it this is a perfect movie to send the kids to while you go to Mad Max and watch what a talented filmmaker can do.

  25. No amount of below the line talent or above the line star power will substitute for a fresh idea. Let us assume the world is “saved” …or can’t be. Now, where’s the meat of an idea, and not just the potatoes? This review is a too long for a movie short on ideas.

  26. Ksera says:

    Clooney……..I’m out.

  27. al says:

    Anybody ever notice that Clooney plays himself in every movie he is in?

  28. John says:

    And please don’t blame George Clooney for this. He is a gifted actor, who still cares to keep up filmmaking as an art form and not a as a noisy, dreadful box of repetitive tricks and idiocy.

  29. John says:

    Damon Lindelof made a mess of Prometheus (with the complicity of Ridley Scott), and evidently got “Lost” in his own labyrinth with the series messy ending. It´s a pity that such a giftes director as Brad Bird allowed this to happen. And, by the way Hollywood, it´s the script. stupid!

    • Sam America says:

      he’s a fing hippocrite like all rich hollyweird Washington and other progressives who push their crap
      on the rest of us and we pay for it with higher taxes unemployment gas food healthcare etc…which
      doesn’t effect their sorry asses who have money and get richer while the rest of us get poorer!

      • PG says:

        Maybe the 1% should pay higher taxes, so they feel the pinch as well?

        And naturally all political parties are pulling for that, so it’s all good. Things will be better tomorrow when that happens.

        Healthcare costs rising can be easily addressed by nationalized healthcare – as in the rest of the industtialized world – and that’ also politically and widely popular.

        Hooray for the future!

  30. Tim McGraw’s in it! Must be awesome! Did he bring his hairpiece too?

  31. Scott Durso says:

    Damon Lindelof… need I say anything else? Guy is poison for scripts, screenplays, narrative, characters, etc. That said, Brad Bird is the man. I was hopeful he could make a gem on this otherwise unappealing concept and over-ride the Lindelof affect… but from the sound of it that just wasn’t possible. And if Brad Bird couldn’t do it, I HIGHLY doubt anyone else could have. Redbox rental I suppose.

  32. Mr. Bill says:

    Clooney said he would do everything in his power to get Hillary elected president. Boycott his movies. Make him irreverent.

  33. robertnotsowise says:

    oh. damon lindelof wrote it. of COURSE it stinks

  34. yirmin snipe says:

    My kids actually wanted to see it… but I said no. Not because of George Clooney’s beliefs… but because he is a crappy actor that only got a job because he came from the right scrotum.. Even if his political beliefs matched mine to a “T” I would still find his pompous attitude and inability to act enough reason not to waste money on the movie.

  35. William Speers says:

    ‘A sort of ‘Interstellar Jr.’ in which the fate of humanity hinges on our ability to nurture young hearts and minds…”

    Wow, something new in movie plots!

  36. jpaq68 says:

    I don’t think Walt Disney’s vision of EPCOT was a $100 a day theme park

    • Space Ranger says:

      You do know that the ticket price of $105 is designed to control crowd sizes at the parks without cutting into the bottom line right? If Disney’s parks were not so popular this would not be possible.

      • AbortYourself says:

        What? Are you implying that the ticket cost is used as a form of discrimination? Keep the “trash” out, so to speak? What a liberal concept, like poll taxes and competency tests for voting, Democrats didn’t want those former slaves to vote so they devised methods to discriminate. Well, in all fairness, Democrats actually preferred eugenics, but somehow that never caught on. Now all they do is call everyone else a racist.

  37. corvetteman6 says:

    I like George Clooney. I could care less about his politics. It’s a shame Variety chooses to post comments from the outer fringe of our society. It’s like the entire card-carrying Tea Party shows up to post their mentally constipated blather. Who cares? It’s entertainment.

    • I’m not a member of the Tea Party or any Political party, having said that, Clooney still sucks.

    • Sandy Muller says:

      Yes only liberal comments should be posted here. Again, notice how intolerant those are preach tolerance are? Bastards. They also never have any facts to back up their arguments it’s always just emotion.

      • kenjimoto says:

        This is Variety, you moron. It’s an industry trade paper. There are normally very few comments here, and those are from people who have actually seen the movie or have some genuine interest in it. Not everyone is led by the nuts some version of Matt Drudge. Anyway, your concept of testing tolerance is to poke something with a stick and see if it bites back. Maybe liberals don’t everything—they just hate you!

    • woodNfish says:

      “Who cares? It’s entertainment.”

      Actually, it is propaganda wrapped up as entertainment.

    • DJH says:

      The outer fringe? Guess what – most of us don’t go to the theater anymore precisely because we’re tired of the mindless celebritwits attacking average Americans.

      The fringe – look in the mirror buddy – you’re the fringe and your tired, cowardly, mindless attacks on those you don’t agree with is just further proof of how small minded you are!

      • Sam America says:

        but the brainwashed braindead left wing progressives don’t see it that way! they are zombies!
        they are told what to think, eat, dress, wear, watch, buy, drive etc…and they just obey!

      • kenjimoto says:

        Wrong. You paranoid America-haters are on the way out. You’re just a lot noisier than regular people who are trying to enjoy their lives and talk about, ya know, movies.

    • TruthHurts says:

      His acting is as lousy as his politics. You state you could care less about politics, but then you turn right around and attempt to bash an entire political group based upon conjecture. Phooey.

    • jvjj says:

      Great hearing from you, George.

  38. Always happy to see Clooney fail.

  39. Bretfox says:

    Looney Clooney productions is for die hard liberals who live in fantasy land. I do not waste my money nor my time on any Looney Clooney movies.

  40. Richard1725 says:

    Simply boycott liberal/socialist like Clooney, Fonda et al…BOYCOTT THEM! Hit Hollyweird where it hurts…at the box office!

  41. Purge is coming says:

    More pop psy liberal propaganda. Poor baby boomers. The world no longer wants you smelly hippies in the command chair.

  42. Socraticsilliness says:

    It sounds awful. The reviewer spent way too many words trying to say something we all kind of figured for ourselves.

  43. jvjjj says:

    Clooney is more interested in furthering his political agenda than he is in providing entertainment value.

  44. Jane says:

    Sounds dreadful. I will pass on this one.

  45. Lex says:

    I saw a preview of the movie and couldn’t tell you what it was about. A ‘magical’ future type place. I just didn’t see a great plot coming out that. Not to mention 2015 was supposed to be one of those ‘magical future places’. I’m looking at you Back to the Future 2! :)

  46. John Miller says:

    Sounds like a clunker.

  47. sailordude says:

    Since it had Clooney in it preaching about the “future”, I had zero interest in it and thought many others would feel the same. He just reeks of leftist big brother knows whats good for you clap trap.

  48. kenjimoto says:

    Good thing these comments are moderated. We wouldn’t want to get swamped by tinfoil-hat-wearing wingnuts now, would we?

  49. ezeealrm says:

    If the theme park Tomorrowland were as boring looking as the movie, it would be a ghost town. Probably make more money overseas where downbeat over seriousness sells.

  50. Tony Redunzo says:

    Clooney is wooden as an actor.
    His only exceptions have been films where the story and other actors have carried him along.

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