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He can’t play dumb: Clooney in The Good German.

A Bad Director

By Laura Leon

The Good German

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

In making The Good German, dir ector Steven Soderbergh has indicated in numerous interviews that he sought to pay homage to the great mid-’40s films. In particular, he referred to those from Warner Bros., which dealt in the vagaries and mysteries of human behavior, all painted in velvety whites, blacks and the all-important grays. In watching The Good German, one can see the direct influence of, say, Casablanca, but that’s only because Soderbergh blatantly riffs off famous scenes, notably the airstrip finale, complete with a shot of a vintage plane’s propellers whirring into action. That said, the relationship is murky at best; Soderbergh may try to mimic the look of certain scenes, but if anything, The Good German suggests that he has no clue how to re-create the emotional mood and, more importantly, the economy of storytelling that marked the very best films of that glorious era.

Based on the book by Joseph Kanon, and adapted for screen by Paul Attanasio, The Good German is basically The Third Man redux, albeit without a compelling Harry Lime or even a convincing patsy like Holly Martins. George Clooney plays war correspondent Jake Geismer, who returns to postwar Berlin not so much in hopes for a big story as in finding ex-lover Lena Brandt (a raven-haired, dark-eyed Cate Blanchett). What he finds is way more than he bargained for: Berlin is a cesspool of depravity, suffering and political intrigue, as the Russians and Americans scurry to co-opt former Nazi scientists in preparation for the Cold War. Questions abound as to whom to trust and who is working for whom; and Geismer is consistently a day late and a dollar short when it comes to figuring it all out.

A huge problem with The Good German is that Clooney, an actor who can’t help but ooze intelligence and ability, has to be so clueless, even inert. He actually gets the crap kicked out of him by his driver and competitor for Lena’s attentions, the wily Patrick Tully (Tobey Maguire), who runs secret and successful black-market schemes on the side. Whereas Kanon’s book carefully developed Tully into a force of evil, Attanasio and Soderbergh seem content with the visual shock value of having Spiderman do nasty things to Lena. Not helping is the dialogue, particularly when it comes to Tully’s Jekyll/Hyde personality. Maguire enthusing about his gal back home’s apple pie doesn’t sound right, and it isn’t, because we soon realize that Tully is a bad guy. The problem is that nobody talks like this anymore, and if they ever did, this dialogue certainly sounded more legit coming from the mouths of, say, Arthur Kennedy or Robert Ryan.

Throughout The Good German, one has the queasy feeling of watching somebody—namely Soderbergh—get off. Making it worse is the fact that Soderbergh clearly enjoys the act of being watched, like a child supremely proud of the mess he’s made of Mom’s vegetable garden. He apparently has no concern that his movie is all about copying angles and shots, not about creating and sustaining a viable plotline, or examining the depths of his characters’ souls. His uninterest in anything “real” is most evident in his lackadaisical direction of Blanchett, who, once you get past the idea that she’s playing a German Jew, actually conveys the idea, in her detachment and self-hate, of a Germany laid bare by years of heady supremacy and base venality. Hers is a performance that begs to be supported by so much more in way of vision and script and direction, but it’s left to prop itself up on its own, a lone stick figure of interest and depth in a landscape devoid of anything save the director’s self-importance.

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