Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Review: The Good German (2006)

The Good German
102 minutes
Rated R

by Scott Mendelson

Steven Soderbergh wants to have it both ways. He wants to capture the 'glory days' of post-WWII film noir, while attempting to create a modern picture with allegedly modern sensibilities. Alas, due to both Soderbergh's condescending naiveté towards old movies, as well as his unwillingness to fully commit to his old-school hybrid, the result is a mangled mess of a film.

The plot: Immediately following the Nazi's defeat to the allied powers, Berlin is in shambles and everyone is trying to get a piece of the post-war pie. Enter Captain Jacob 'Jake' Geismer (George Clooney, doing his best but looking nothing what-so-ever like a 1940's tough-guy movie star), an American journalist who is in Berlin to cover the news of the day for the American front. Geismer hasn't been in Berlin since before the war, but he still pines for the stringer that he left behind, Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett, looking absolutely like a 1940s glamour queen, but regulated to a role that is actually more passive and victimized than she would have been in a 1940's thriller; score one for progress?). He runs into her almost instantly, as she is apparently using his driver, Patrick Tully (Tobey Maguire, stunningly miscast, yet absurdly enjoyable because of it) to get out of Germany. Intrigue quickly occurs, and a search for Brandt's allegedly dead husband sets off a chain of events that threatens to unravel the entire peace process.

The film is shot in black-and-white, but not glorious black and white, as the cinematography feels like what it probably is, a film that was shot in color than altered after the fact, resulting in a muted, ugly image. The music score by Thomas Newman is an attempt at the loud, unsubtle bombastic arrangement that characterizes the pictures of old, but it's a gimmick that grows old by the end of the first act. The production apparently strictly adhered to the old-style, with sound stages, old-fashioned cameras and lenses, and even a 1.66:1 aspect ratio with black bars on the side of the screen (of course, if he wanted to be completely pure to the period, the film would have been a square aspect of 1.33:1 or the aspect ratio of your TV set).

Soderbergh cheats whenever it fits him, resulting in a weird mish-mash that is neither true to the old ways nor sufficiently deconstructive to justify those deviations. The film is rated R, and it's filled with sex, profanity, and violence that would never have been allowed under the production code (the film arbitrarily tosses around the 'f-word' like a college freshman writer who has been allowed to use profanity for the first time). More problematic is the casting. Cate Blanchett surely does look and act like the classic screen dames of the 1940s (that's always been part of her allure, a timeless grown-up beauty to go along with her peerless acting), but no one else fits their part. George Clooney may be a fine actor should be commended for using his star power to get interesting films made, but he does not and will never look like Robert Mitchum or Humphrey Bogart, which is who he is desperately trying to play. Having him get beaten up every ten minutes doesn't sell the act either. At least it's comically entertaining to watch Maguire play a hot-wired, violent punk of a soldier, showing more energy than the rest of his low-key filmography put together.

Then there is the storyline, which is betrayed by our knowledge of history. There is supposed to be mystery and suspense in regards to why people from various countries are searching for Mr. Brandt, but anyone with a cursory knowledge of post-World War II power brokering can correctly guess the only reason that would fit into this morally compromised world. Further more, the only other mystery is the secret that Lena is carrying, some action she took that explains why she's mistreated herself since. Again, under these circumstances, there can be only one secret (hint, it's what you do as an audience member at the climax of a bad production of The Diary Of Anne Frank).

The film, despite allegedly being darker and more complicated than its forefathers, actually presents a simpler and less intriguing story that those movies being aped. Heck, many of the post-war movies (from The Best Years Of Our Lives, to It's A Wonderful Life) deal with the disillusionment of an entire generation, and the entire modern detective genre is rooted in how to be moral and decent when no one else is (quote Raymond Chandler: "Down these mean streets walks a man who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid"). The Good German walks down those same mean streets without seeing the footprints left by history, film history or otherwise.

Grade: C-

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