I was first alerted to The Good German‘s existence during the trailers for the excellent sci-fi/period/philosophical movie The Fountain, aka Hugh Jackman Making Out With Trees. I was impressed by the amount of retro style it had, along with the names attached. Clooney? Blanchett? SODERBERGH? Was there any WAY this movie could disappoint me?!
Ugh. Yes. Once again, I should’ve been more wary. A distinct lack of distribution, buzz and all-around unawareness that this movie existed when there was such a team behind it should have been the first warning sign. The second should have been the mixed opinions on the movie itself. But I said, “Maybe I’ll be one of the people that connects with it! I bet it’s just too specialized to be appreciated by most movie-goers. I, on the other hand, love this kind of stuff! I’ll be fine!”
No, I would not be fine. After a month or so of watching it be sold out every Friday at Blockbuster, I finally got my hands on a copy and skedaddled home with it. I watched it on our new Oppo DVD player that can upconvert to 1080p (we can only display HD resolution on the TV in my parents’ room up to 720p, anyhow) that made it look crisp as could be. Within the first twenty minutes I could tell this movie and I weren’t going to get along too well. Within an hour I was wondering how much longer the movie could drag on. And finally by the end of it, I was sort of glad to see it go.
But you don’t even really know what the movie’s about yet, do you? Basically WWII just ended in Europe and the Allies are greedily rubbing their hands at the prospects of chopping up pieces of Berlin for themselves. Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin convene for their conference on this and George Clooney shows up as an American reporter with a past in Berlin. It doesn’t matter what his character’s name is, since you never believe George Clooney is in character. So he meets his American driver, Tobey Maguire (again, names are meaningless) who is a bit of a rogue, stealing Clooney’s wallet and meeting up with his gal, a German escort named Lena (Cate Blanchett, Lord of the Rings). When Clooney meets back up with Lena, whom he has a past romantic entanglement with, things begin to heat up and it all escalates into a power play between the two superpowers over weapons technology.
Does that summary leave you frothing at the mouth to see the movie? No? It’s even more meh-inducing watching it play out for 100+ minutes. What’s the movie’s flaw, you ask? What ISN’T this movie’s flaw is the better question. I have no idea why this was so hard for Soderbergh to pull off. I really like Soderbergh. He gained a lot of respect from me for his experimental film Schizopolis and his other genre throwback a few years ago, Solaris, that harkened back to sci-fi films in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey where plot and metaphor was more important than what kind of shoe the protagonist wore. Soderbergh is probably more well-known for his films Traffic and the Ocean’s franchise that for some reason people keep paying to go see. It’s weird, but Soderbergh seems to love vacillating between two extremes in Hollywood: on the one hand, he makes multi-million dollar blockbusters like Ocean’s 11 with megastars and egos that I didn’t think you’d be able to squash together into one room; on the other hand he makes films like Bubble where dialog was almost all ad-libbed and the lead actress was discovered in a KFC. The Good German seems to be neither fish nor fowl, with its low publicity and stunt-genre-trappings (the movie is in black and white and was even filmed in 4:3 aspect ratio like films of old) but also boasting a rather respectable cast.
Apart from a boring story, the acting is another big reason why this movie feels like a failure. George Clooney is the leading man but hardly ever brings any of his considerable charisma or talent to his role. He constantly appears confused when he’s on screen, almost always having the same blank, inscrutable look on his face. He has the same look when he meets Lena for the first time as he does when they depart at the end, and I don’t think it was deliberate.
And Tobey, sheesh. Mis-cast, mis-directed, name something and Tobey was probably mis-somethinged in this movie. He plays one of the worst, most unredeemable assholes in recent memory in this movie, slapping around Lena whom he supposedly loves, gleefully stealing money from the dopey Clooney reporter, making deals he doesn’t understand with Russian
mobsters officials and getting beaten up. A lot. And then screaming and making the most hilarious angry faces. Listen, Soderbergh, why did you think he’d be right for this movie? Tobey looks and sounds like he’s 15 years old, and you want us to believe he’s a boozing, abusing womanizer with dollar signs in his eyes? Please. He was a more convincing jerk in Spider-Man 3.
Cate Blanchett scrapes by with being the best of the leading actors in this movie, probably by virtue of the fact little is asked of her. Now, I’m not one of those people that think that Cate is a succubus of quality when it comes to film, but she’s really not that great here. She’s playing a caricature more than a real character. She’s a dame. You know dames. Deep-voiced, mysterious and constantly being half-lit. That’s her in this. All the time. There’s hardly a moment where she isn’t cynical, lying, being tossed around by Clooney or climbing/descending stairs. I discussed her role with Film Walrus and he seemed to believe she was supposed to be some kind of homage to Marlene Dietrich. Soderbergh would’ve been better off having her be an homage to a WELL-WRITTEN CHARACTER.
One of the film’s saving graces is its occasionally interesting cinematography. When Lena begins her segment of the film, we follow her down a darkened passageway underground and into the ruined tunnels underneath Berlin where water has pooled and danger could lurk around any corner. It’s a wonderful noir moment and it’s certainly one of the more memorable shots in a non-sci-fi/fantasy movie I’ve seen in a while. (I just saw Labyrinth and Sunshine in theaters, it’s not fair to compare them to this.)
Even though this movie takes place in the wake of WWII and Germany’s Nazi regime of bigotry and hatred, they lay on the Holocaust comments pretty thick. Often apropos of nothing. They’ll just break into accounts of truck drivers not knowing their exhaust was being piped back into the back of their trucks to exterminate the Jews put in there. What does that have to do with ANYTHING going on at the moment, Soderbergh?!
I know it’s not good to pump other movies in your review of one movie, but I feel this circumstance begs for it. If you’re looking for a throwback to film noir, I’d recommend the movie Brick a million times over this. It’s almost like this movie’s doppelganger. Where The Good German relies on black and white, period atmosphere and Cate Blanchett channeling a dead actress, Brick does modern film noir in a modern high school environment in color and with classic dialog that sounds like it was ripped straight from Mickey Spillane. It’s got dames and an engrossing plot and YET ANOTHER LOST castmate. I think they’re starting their own film and television army.
But really, it’s like everyone showed up on the Good German set and looked at each other and said, “This isn’t gonna work.” There’s just this general sense of blah-ness that permeates the entire production. You can look into their eyes and tell they just gave up. As the runtime ticked on, I wanted to, too.