Published Dec 6, 2009

If you say “1980s movie character archetype,” maybe you come up with John Rambo, or Ferris Bueller, or Charlie Sheen in Wall Street — America kicking ass, America growing up, America getting rich — but the ultimate character archetype of the ’80s for me is someone with a lot less hair, a lot more coiled rage, a lot more cool. Let’s face it, the ’80s were all about Louis Gossett Jr. And the ’90s, for every Brad Pitt or tight-lipped Robert Pattinson, there’s the standard: all the cool, none of the rage, it’s George Clooney.

For those of you whose late elementary school hopes and dreams weren’t defined by Iron Eagle, here’s how it works: whether in An Officer and a Gentleman or The Principal, ol’ Lou was a hard-working, professional guy who’d already given everything, but had to do buck authority and put it all on the line one more time to save his country, plus teach someone to grow up while he did it. None of that Bud Fox crap could’ve happened without some Louis Gossett Jr. in the background making things safe for big shoulders and suitcases of money, physically and existentially.

As for Clooney, in the go-go early part of the century, he played Danny Ocean, the perpetual kid (Danny?!?!) who looked great, lived high, and did it all just by moving one pile of money back and forth between two locations. Now that reality has blown the top off of that whole business model, he’s been re-invented, playing an archetype for the post-AIG era in The Men Who Stare at Goats and Up in the Air.

Clooney plays the same archetype — different character, but same archetype — in both movies. In Goats, he was in a special psychic army unit in the ’70s, drummed out for doing his job well but falling afoul of the right people; now he’s come back to join Ewan McGregor in a journey through Iraq to reveal the truth. In Up in the Air — which, despite the trailers, seems to feature no music by Iggy Pop at all — he’s a consultant who did his job perfectly and lived his life the way he wanted (alone), but is suddenly confronted with a new, Web-only way to do his job and a new girl who makes him want to settle down. In both, Clooney’s an example of past success in a new world, challenged to change, with the dark question in the background of whether or not there’s anything he can change into that matters in what’s to come.

Other actors in both movies actually outshine Clooney — particularly Jeff Bridges in Goats and Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air. But that’s fine, because Clooney is now the everyman who provides the basis for all of society, not some Danny Ocean who provides all the flash. And with his salt-and-pepper hair and deep, basset hound eyes, Clooney’s perfect for the part. He’ll be heading off into the sunset, all Alan Ladd on a horse, in movie after movie now; except there’ll be no little kid running after him; that was the archetype of the ’50s. Our new character heads off into the sunset alone, and society moves in its own direction, and that’s just how it is.

And you should see these movies, that’s just how that is.