Sometimes in show business, it's good to have a gimmick to generate interest in your product. The gimmick deployed by Steven Soderbergh for The Good German is a nifty one indeed -- recreate the feel and style of a classic '40s noir film. But, as it turns out, Soderbergh's gimmick is just about all his dramatically vacant experience has to offer. If it weren't for the novelty -- and for a singular, gripping performance by Cate Blanchett -- The Good German might as well have been titled The Incredibly Boring German.
Throughout his career, Soderbergh has jumped from genre to genre, like a restless frog leaping from one lily pad to the next. Frequently, he lands on his feet, eloquently and confidently -- witness Traffic, Erin Brockovich, even Ocean's Eleven. But the most capable director will miss the mark every so often. With The Good German, Soderbergh lands in deep water and pretty much drowns. His movie is at once needlessly complicated and vexingly simpleminded. It boasts a climactic revelation meant to make us gasp and shudder with horror, but the air let loose from our lungs is merely a sigh of relief that the movie is finally over.
Not good enough: Blanchett, Clooney
Shot in black and white, The Good German pays respect to the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Curtiz, whose Casablanca is so strongly referenced in the aforementioned climactic scene, you could bottle it and perfume the air with it. Paul Attanasio's screenplay, based on a novel by Joseph Kanon, attempts to capture the whipcrack, stylized writing that typified '40s films, yet remains a work of spectacular blandness. It's fraught with anachronisms: George Clooney's character of Capt. Jake Geismer, for example, a New Republic reporter sent in 1945 to post-war Berlin to cover the historic peace accord at Potsdam, spouts things like ''I got a little pissy with him.'' Given Clooney's sullen, granite portrayal -- he's like a statute that's been magically granted the ability to walk -- the out-of-time dialogue is at least something to be amused by.
The narrative finds Geismer obsessively caught up in a murder investigation that leads to a former German flame whose Nazi husband may or may not be alive, but who would certainly come in handy during the war-crimes tribunals. It's a cluttered affair that begins with the death of Geismer's assigned driver, an opportunistic, abusive American G.I. named Patrick Tully (Tobey Maguire), who was tied to Geismer's former flame -- the morose, ultimately soulless, Lena Brandt (Blanchett). There are so many dips and dives, turns and curves, that's it's impossible to glean anyone's true objective. In any case, it all leads to that crashing final letdown set on a misty airfield.
Starring George Clooney, Cate Blanchett
Opens Dec. 22
Unlike Clooney, who seems perplexed as to how best typify a '40s-style hero, Blanchett plugs right into the era, channeling a combination of Marlene Dietrich, Tallulah Bankhead and Ingrid Bergman. Sultry, sexy and commanding, Blanchett's every moment on screen is memorable, hypnotic and haunting. Then again, when everyone else around you is mediocre, it's not hard to steal every moment.
Soderbergh, who performed cinematography duties using an assumed name, fails to achieve a consistent black-and-white tone. Put it this way: He's no Gordon Willis. Sometimes the look feels right out of the '40s, lush and velvet. Other times it feels flat and drab, as though it were fresh from the George Romero Night of the Living Dead bargain basement.
There is, however, one consistently stunning component in The Good German -- Thomas Newman's score, a glorious throwback to the sumptuous orchestrations that typified dramas of the era. It's so perfect, it might as well have been written by the legendary Franz Waxman.
With The Good German, Soderbergh is clearly mucking around, using cinematic history as a personal sandbox. It's more like a constraining playpen. Do yourself a favor -- if you really feel the need to relive a classic, skip this mock attempt and rent the real thing instead -- Casablanca or Foreign Correspondent or Notorious. Good alternatives, all.