Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Review - The Good German

Herbert Ross’ excellent 1972 film Play It Again, Sam begins with Woody Allen in a darkened cinema, his mouth agape, his eyes wide open as he sits transfixed by the scene playing out in front of him. The scene in question is the climactic sequence from Casablanca, with Humphrey Bogart telling Ingrid Bergman to get on that plane, and Woody hangs on every word as the actors recite some of the most memorable dialogue in film history. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

That opening sequence came to mind as I watched
The Good German, a film which admires the classical Hollywood pictures of the 30’s and 40’s much as Woody stares lovingly at Michael Curtiz’s famous love story. Steven Soderbergh’s adaptation of Joseph Kanon’s novel is his attempt to make a Casablanca for a modern audience; but by the time the director has given us his own version of the scene referred to above, The Good German has long revealed itself to be a clueless and hollow pastiche. It’s a film which aims to slavishly recreate every technical aspect of those great films which have gone before, but in doing so it spectacularly misses the point of what made those films great in the first place.

The Good German captures the surface details of old Hollywood pictures, but it’s not those details which make films like Casablanca and The Third Man such established classics; it’s their slick writing, iconic performances and clear-eyed direction - all aspects which The Good German lacks. It also lacks any sort of involving story, with Paul Attanasio’s screenplay blandly sketching the links between plot points in a fashion which wouldn’t pass muster in any era. Jake Geismer (George Clooney) is an American reporter who has returned to Berlin to write about the forthcoming Potsdam peace conference. His driver Tully (Tobey Maguire) is a cocky young soldier just who loves this dirty town, with plenty of money to be made on the black market and plenty of women turning to prostitution in such difficult times. Tully, however, only has eyes for Lena (Cate Blanchett), a German woman who happens to be an old flame of Jake’s.

When Jake runs into Tully and Lena he’s also unwittingly running into a complex plot which is too dreary and incoherent to relate in any detail here. There are twists aplenty, duplicitous characters and hints at a larger conspiracy, but it all unfolds with a startling lack of grace and a thick fog of confusion envelops much of its narrative. In fact, one gets the sense quite early on that Soderbergh’s heart isn’t really in this film’s story, and instead we find the director obsessing over the minutiae of his production.

The Good German isn’t just a film set in the 1940’s, it has been produced as if it were a film made in the 1940’s. Soderbergh has aped the look and sound of the era, imposing strict guidelines upon his crew as he attempted to recreate the conditions under which directors of that age would have made their pictures. He even used original lenses, traditional boom mics and large, incandescent lights to bring a bygone age back to the big screen. Stylistically, the film frequently utilises a standard mise-en-scéne, with occasional swipe-cuts and stock footage being thrown into the mix; and the only concessions Soderbergh makes to the film’s contemporary status is the introduction of sex, violence and strong language (incongruously, Clooney gets to say “fuck a duck”) which would have been outlawed by the Hayes Code. But The Good German never feels like a 1940’s film, it feels like a soulless copy of a 1940’s film, which is exactly what it is. Even the supposedly meticulous recreation feels off; the lighting is too harsh, the set-ups are too static, Thomas Newman’s score is too generic - we’re never allowed to forget the fact that we’re watching a movie.

In truth, the closest point of comparison isn’t a film from six decades ago, but a film from just a few years ago. Todd Haynes’
Far From Heaven was another attempt to reproduce a certain style of filmmaking, namely the lush 50’s melodramas of Douglas Sirk, with some more modern sensibilities being carefully crafted onto a straightforward structure. But Haynes seemed to have an implicit understanding of the genre he was exploring; his production matched the Technicolor beauty of Sirk’s films, but it retained a life of its own; his actors gave performances which were studied in the 50’s style, but they were rich with subtle nuances; and the score by Elmer Bernstein recalled past efforts while also being completely in tune with the story’s emotions. Far From Heaven, despite being a film rooted in the past, was one of the freshest and purest cinematic experiences of 2002; but while Haynes’ film was an act of loving homage, The Good German never looks like anything other than a cold technical exercise.

In contrast to
Far From Heaven’s pitch-perfect performances, the actors involved in The Good German are all at sea. Clooney has movie star charisma to burn, but he’s always at his best in roles which allow him to play on the lighter side of things - he’s more Cary Grant than Humphrey Bogart - and he gives a stiff, buttoned-down performance here which does him no favours. “He didn’t look like a patsy” Tully’s voiceover muses when he first meets Jake, and it’s true - Jake doesn’t look like a patsy - but he’s not much of a hero either, and Clooney’s unsure display is fatal for the picture. The boyish Maguire is miscast as the rowdy, conniving Tully; and while Blanchett’s attempt to channel the spirit of Dietrich and Garbo is a little more enjoyable, none of the three principal characters are ever allowed to breathe. They each get a slice of the film’s voiceover, but their motives remain obscure, and the interplay between the characters remains lukewarm.

This is a hugely disappointing stumble for Soderbergh. He has had an extraordinary run since his mid-90’s Hollywood resurrection, but the best films in his long purple patch -
Out of Sight, The Limey and Traffic - have all been loose and sprightly affairs, which is what makes this film all the more baffling. In putting himself under such restrictions, Soderbergh has sucked all the spark out of his usually vibrant directing style; the film has no heart, and no life of its own. It’s just a stupendously dull stroll through a witless, directionless story peopled by characters you couldn’t give a damn about.

The Good German concludes on an airfield, with two former lovers standing in the dark while a nearby plane prepares for imminent departure. It’s practically a shot-for-shot replay of Casablanca’s famous finale; but while that scene went down in history, this version is one of the most anticlimactic endings it’s possible to imagine. The Good German is a dreadful, empty, pointless film; and while the pictures Soderbergh has drawn inspiration from are still revered six decades after their production, few people are likely to recall this insipid act of mimicry with similar affection. I guess they really don’t make ‘em like that anymore.