Tuesday, December 12, 2006

German lessons

Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney have Ocean's 13 coming out next summer. Tobey Maguire suits up as Spider-Man for the third time in May. And freshly minted Golden Globe nominee Cate Blanchett has the riveting Notes on a Scandal due in just two weeks. Which is to say that The Good German will pass quickly from all their resumes. A World War II novel filmed as a Turner Classic Movie, in black-and-white, with a squarish, pre-Cinemascope 1.66:1 aspect ratio ("windowboxed" in a standard 1.85:1 frame) and a Thomas Newman score that grabs you by the earlobes and insists it's by Miklos Rozsa in his prime, The Good German is little more than a series of drab pictorial effects.

Soderbergh directs a complex tale of Berlin-set intrigue, set in the shadow of the Postdam Conference that divvied up the remains of Europe for the next, cold war, with a bad case of movie love. Philip Messina's rubble-strewn production design, not a concrete fragment out of place and seamlessly blended with documentary footage, conjures the real Germany, as filmed by Roberto Rossellini for Germany Year Zero and Billy Wilder for A Foreign Affair. For audiences to more eaily access from their movie memory banks, this is filtered through the Europe of The Third Man and Casablanca, with a nod to the noir of Chinatown, as the glamorously despondent Clooney and Blanchett run through a torturously detailed game of espionage. He is Jake Geismer, a war correspondent for The New Republic; she is Lena, his old flame, reduced to prostitution and trailing secrets as she plots to flee the city. Between them is Jake's assigned driver, Tully (Maguire), a baby-faced war profiteer who cheerfully pimps his girlfriend--Lena. [You know Tully, played at too high a pitch by the actor, is a no-goodnik because he has sex from behind with his partner, a sure cinematic sign that a male character has intimacy issues and is not to be trusted.]

This triangle is forcefully resolved but a new one, involving Lena's late husband, a Nazi rocket program scientist, emerges to take its place. Paul Attanasio's screenplay, from Joseph Kanon's 2001 novel, is so determined not to get muddled that it basically stands in place. It seems a full hour of the sluggishly paced, arrythmically edited drama is spent on Clooney gathering one bit of information from a supporting character, then relaying it to the next with a recap of his past conversations, like a game of Telephone you'd hang up on after the third caller. Occasionally a chair gets broken over his head. But genuine excitement, visceral or moral as Lena's motivations creep out of the darkness, is at a bare minimum. There are none of the chills of Ian McEwan's The Innocent, set later in Berlin's history, the thrills of Paul Verhoeven's nervily exciting Dutch resistance drama, Black Book, due next year, or the bitter, playful ironies of Lars von Trier's masterful Zentropa.

What there are, in abundance, are surfaces, but even these lack sufficient polish. Acting as usual as his own cinematographer, Soderbergh (as Peter Andrews) seems out of his depth; the whites are blown out and smeary, the blacks too often meagerly defined, like a public domain print of a golden oldie. His editing, under another pseudonym, is similarly ragged. The reactive nature of his part doesn't allow Clooney to seize the mantle of Clark Gable; he's more like Robert Taylor, marking time in yet another MGM assignment where the girl gets all the good stuff. And she does; trouble is, she's supporting player Robin Weigert (Deadwood's Calamity Jane), as a blowsy hooker who steals a few scenes and wrings all three laughs from the screenplay. Weigert proves that blondes do have more fun, certainly more than Blanchett. The actress, who won an Oscar playing Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, tries out her Ingrid Bergman and Marlene Dietrich. But her woman of mystery is rotoscoped into Soderbergh's hollow construction. It's as if the film clips were removed from the spoof Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid and the actors were stuck recreating all the parts themselves, ending with the unintended comedy of a Casablanca restaging.

The Good German, which Warner Bros. opens Dec. 15, means to be franker and grittier than its predecessors, and to empty them of their traditional, sacrifice-and-uplift values. But the Warner brothers of yesteryear stand firm against this needless, useless assault.

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