As a reporter sent to post-WWII Berlin to cover world events, Jake Geismer (George Clooney) is overwhelmed by the bombed-out surroundings. There to assist him is driver Tully (Tobey Maguire), a military lackey who enjoys the confusion of the area and profits from the black market. Tully is involved with a German prostitute named Lena (Cate Blanchett), who was once in a relationship with Jake early in the war. When Jake spies his old love again, he wishes to solve her numerous problems. But those very troubles run deep into critical military intelligence, and could end up killing everyone who comes near her.
Steven Soderbergh is one of the most intelligent, crafty directors in the business today, but every once in a blue moon, his artistic impulses run him straight into a brick wall. "The Good German" could be viewed as the filmmaker's most controlled piece of directing to date, or his most miscalculated. If he didn't already drop the bomb branded "Bubble" earlier this year, I would be more inclined to call the misfiring of "German" a fluke, but Soderbergh has been having a helluva time matching his ambition with quality lately.
It doesn't take a USC cinema scholar to observe that "German" is big, fat, wet kiss to filmdom of the 1940s; more specifically to such immortal pictures as "Casablanca" and "The Third Man." Soderbergh pushes "German" to not only emulate the mood of these classics, but the actual cinematic style as well.
The picture is a living mirror of Hollywood's golden age, returning the old Warner Brothers shield to the big screen, placing emphasis on glamour and polish, utilizing rear-projection for driving sequences, old title fonts, and shooting the whole deal in black & white. Or should I say, blacker & white, because Soderbergh's cinematography (he shot the film himself) favors not only shadow, but pitch black, often making action hard to understand and locations unreadable.
"German" sweats Reed, Welles, and Curtiz out of every last pore, and it's admittedly a treat to gaze at a recreation of a screen era that has had such a profound effect on the lives of cinema lovers worldwide. Soderbergh is committed to preserving the experience almost every step of the way. Almost.
When it comes down to the acting and screenwriting, "German" is its own angry creature. I'm clueless as to why Soderbergh didn't take his experiment the whole nine yards, but he allows his actors all the method they can handle, which looks strange when the rest of the picture is so drunk on another era of acting expectation. Also loopy is the script's full court press of obscenities and sexuality. Imagine Humphrey Bogart calling someone the c-word and patronizing local hookers. Can't? Well, that was the point of "Casablanca," again leaving "German" with a perplexing, bitter sensation when the oral flavors come straight from 2006, while the remainder of the film is frozen in 1942.
It doesn't really matter in the long run how hard the production tries to spice up the verbiage of the picture. They could toss Andrew Dice Clay into the middle of this thing and it wouldn't change the fact that neither the narrative nor the performances grab the viewer. Only Tobey Maguire manages to surprise with his venomous Army driver, but Blanchett and Clooney are trapped in the ornamentation of the piece. The talent also battles with the floppy plot; a tale of twisted allegiances and double-crossing that fails to ignite or connect with any recognizable form of passion, even the retro distancing kind.
"The Good German" sure is a pretty picture, and I enjoyed Soderbergh's visual gusto when it found focus and motivation. This is a film filled with superior production values and respectful tones, but it just never manages to carve itself out a spot of its own.
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