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George Clooney's career path is smart

Bruce Fretts says the former ”ER” star made the right decision to leave TV for the big screen

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George Clooney’s career path is smart

He couldn’t have timed it better. One day after 31.5 million Americans tuned in for the disappointing season premiere of NBC’s ”ER,” George Clooney came out in the best film of his career, ”Three Kings.” What better way to say ”I told you so” to everyone who had doubted his decision to leave TV’s top-rated show?

We don’t yet know if ”Kings” will rule at the fall box office. It opened at No. 2 with $15.8 million — a solid start but still a long way from making back its $50 million budget. But with a movie this good, the numbers don’t count quite so much. What matters is that Clooney has finally shed the swaggering mannerisms of Dr. Doug Ross.

His heavy-lidded bedroom eyes served him well in certain film roles — the seductive bank robber in ”Out of Sight,” for example. Yet it was starting to look like Clooney didn’t have much range as an actor; his bank robber didn’t seem all that different from his Batman.

As a Desert Storm soldier who discovers a cache of Iraqi gold — and his conscience — in ”Kings,” Clooney gives his most straight-ahead performance to date. His face is growing more interesting with age, and he’s not afraid to let the camera explore it, without winking.

He never got that opportunity on ”ER” — the camera was always moving too fast. And herein lies the main reason why the show feels creatively exhausted. Its heart-pumping pace was invigorating for the first few seasons, but you can only run on adrenaline for so long.

The constant-motion gimmick has worn thin as it’s been copied by other series like Aaron Sorkin’s ”Sports Night” and ”West Wing” and ”ER” cocreator John Wells’ own ”Third Watch.” It also doesn’t allow viewers to care much about any given patient when we know another one’s going to come crashing through the doors any second.

The producers are trying to make up for Clooney’s loss with an infusion of fresh characters, but now the ER just seems overcrowded. As new pediatric resident Cleo Finch, Michael Michele (”Homicide”) barely had enough screen time to register in the season premiere. No wonder the underutilized Gloria Reuben (a.k.a. HIV-positive Jeannie Boulet) is leaving to become a backup singer on Tina Turner’s tour.

Clooney is being wooed to return to ”ER” for a guest shot, but he’d be smart to say no. He doesn’t need the money or the exposure. With a pair of promising movies in the pipeline, the Coen brothers’ ”O, Brother, Where Art Thou?” and Wolfgang Petersen’s ”The Perfect Storm,” he may never need to do TV again. Not bad for a guy whose biggest film role before ”ER” was in ”Return of the Killer Tomatoes.”