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Clooney Cracks Jokes, Bullock Panics in Venice Opener

'Gravity' Press Conference
George Clooney signing autographs at the end of a press conference for the film "Gravity." While the film is not in competition for the top Venice Festival prize, it is getting favorable reviews . Photographer: Farah Nayeri/Bloomberg

Swathed in state-of-the-art astronaut suits, George Clooney and Sandra Bullock drift merrily through outer space, soaking up the views and engaging in non-stop earthly banter.

“How are you feeling?” asks Clooney, who plays the seasoned astronaut Matt Kowalski in Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity.”

“Like a Chihuahua that’s been tumble-dried,” barks Bullock, alias Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her maiden space voyage. Within minutes, their shuttle is wrecked by satellite debris, leaving them stranded and dangerously short of oxygen.

“Gravity” opened the Venice Film Festival yesterday, with Clooney and Bullock triggering mob scenes all around. At the news conference, Clooney batted away a few odd interventions -- such as the male reporter praising his haircut and suit -- and when asked if he’d trained for the part, deadpanned: “Sandy and I did a lot of Bikram yoga together.”

On a more serious note, director Cuaron described the space disaster in his movie as “a metaphor for adversities,” and said he wanted audiences “to connect to the character emotionally, based on their own experiences.”

Bullock, dressed in a multicolored spaghetti-strap dress, was asked if she’d faced her own life challenges.

Same Mistake

“Yeah, I’ve handled some adversity, and I’m sure there’s a lot more to come,” she said. “I haven’t always acted or reacted in a way that made me proud, but I didn’t make that same mistake twice.”

On screen, Clooney’s Kowalski is a tongue-in-cheek space veteran with crow’s feet who bores the Houston control room as he repeatedly tells the story of his wife running off with a lawyer.

He keeps the wisecracks going even in life-threatening situations.

“You never realized how devastatingly good-looking I am, but I need you to stop staring and help me with the tether,” he tells his shocked partner, post-crash.

Bullock’s character also has a painful past. Her everyday life now boils down to 18-hour days at a lab and long drives listening to the radio.

The actress gets much more screen time than Clooney, and delivers a milestone performance as the space-walker swinging between panic and sangfroid. It’s rare to see a female astronaut take center stage, and her acting makes the character all the more real. There are poetic shots of her shedding the suit and levitating, with her eyes closed, in a fetal position.

Cuaron’s Best

“Gravity” is the best thing that Mexican-born Cuaron has made since “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001), a racy road movie about two teenage boys who hit the beach with a thirty something woman. In that film, Cuaron stylishly combined an incisive study of adolescent sexuality with a quiet denunciation of Mexico’s social injustices.

By comparison, his sci-fi “Children of Men” (2006) was an unsubtle and fairly cartoonish adaptation of the P.D. James novel, though it did win him three Oscar nominations.

“Gravity,” co-written with his son Jonas, offers just the right mix of science fiction, suspense, humor and existential contemplation. Cuaron’s aim to make his space odyssey a metaphor for the human condition sounds corny on paper, yet he makes it work on the big screen.

Where the movie veers into silliness is in the over-use of 3-D (a gimmicky tool at the best of times). As Bullock sobs inside a space station, little tear bubbles form, and head toward the spectator in a burst of three-dimensional tack. A subsequent underwater scene features a lone frog seemingly shooting out of the movie screen.

Still, “Gravity” puts Cuaron back on the map of filmmakers to watch -- and hopefully not just doing science fiction.

Rating: ***.

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Exceptional
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         So-so
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Muse highlights include Robert Heller on music, Jason Harper on cars, Ryan Sutton on food and Laurie Muchnick on books.

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