Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Neither here, nor there

The Good German
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: George Clooney, Tobey Maguire, Cate Blanchett

In science, you have heard of experiments going awry. You have also heard of inventions made by fluke. But what happens when a movie experiment goes all wrong? The result, probably, would be something like The Good German. It’s an ambitious project by an able director (no fluke here) but the end product leaves you baffled, for one thing, you cannot place the movie anywhere. It is so many things at the same time yet, nothing at the end.
First the experiments. Director Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies and Videotape, Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Ocean’s Eleven, Traffic) must have been watching lot of Hollywood 1940s classics, ranging from The Third Man to Casablanca and all those noir films, complete with crime and underworld theme, a protagonist with a past, a femme fatale and a society in gradual degradation. Soderbergh seems to have taken his inspiration literally, for he has shot the film the old Hollywood way, in black and white, and with the same technology that was available then. And you have a Bogart-like George Clooney running after a Bergman-like Cate Blanchett. Sounds interesting, then there’s more.
Soderbergh has added his own variations to this noir experiment. He takes two ex-superheroes, Batman George Clooney and Spider-Man Tobey Maguire and put them in most unheroic circumstances. Clooney gets beaten up, not once or twice, but thrice in the film as Maguire gets to play a scoundrel to the hilt.
Here’s the mystery. US war correspondent Jake Geismer (Clooney) returns to Berlin just after the end of WW II to cover the Postdam Peace Conference. He knows the city. This is the city where once he had fallen in love with Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett). But the city has changed. So have its people, personified by Jake’s driver Corporal Tully (Tobey Maguire), a young man corrupt to the core, ready to do anything for money, power and survival. As chance would have it, Jake meets Lena again, this time as Tully’s girlfriend (If it reminds you of Casablanca, don’t blame Soderbergh!). But Lena has changed now, she is more mysterious than before, and when Tully gets caught into the war, and Jake begins to investigate the scene, there is more than meets the eyes.
The black and white photography serves Soderbergh well. It not only gives the film the noir look, but also brings home the brutalities of war and the consequent moral degradation. And above all this, it’s a good trip down memory lane.
Maguire is a revelation. How completely he sheds his boy-next-door look (of Spider-Man) to be a charming crook! Blanchett is classic, a hundred and one per cent femme fatale. But it’s Clooney who disappoints. Agreed that he’s keen on playing unusual role (Syriana), but he fails to display the cynicism the role demands. He looks good throughout, as always.
The last question. Can one recreate an age without understanding the emotional implications of it? If the film fails to evoke you, blame it on this fact.
It’s very difficult to recommend a film like this. At the same time it is very difficult to advise against it too. In short, The Good German is a 1940s film made in 2006. If you can handle the incongruity of the situation, the choice is yours.

Rating ** ½ (Good, well almost)

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