The Good German is the bad movie.
Except for the ambience -- the look of the film -- it stumbles awkwardly on every level.
In The Good German, director Steven Soderbergh tries to pay homage to the old black-and-white movies of the 1940s. Homage is fine, but the movie also has to work on its own terms. The story and characters have to possess their own validity. In Soderbergh's feeble attempt, they don't.
The Good German is set in Berlin after World War II, where the United States, England and Russia are striving for influence and power. In that environment, German scientists (bomb designers) are a premium for the future and the different countries are conniving for their services.
Against this nefarious background, Jake Geismer (George Clooney), a journalist, comes to Berlin to cover the 1945 Potsdam Conference. His venal, young, army driver Patrick Tully (Tobey Maguire) is having a romantic relationship with Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett), who in the past was Jake's lover and with whom Jake still is smitten. Her scientist husband may be alive, and if so, everybody is after him. Except Paul Henreid (Casablanca), who is spinning in his grave.
On those strained notes, the plot is off creaking down the well-worn road of contrivance. It keeps bumping in plot holes. Forget credibility. Forget logic. They aren't in this movie.
Cate Blanchett had two fine performances last year -- Babel and Notes on a Scandal. Two out of three isn't bad. But what she's doing in this film is beyond belief. In The Good German she is miscast and strained as a femme fatale. Dark hair does not mean characterization. Dye and rinse does not give substance to character. She goes in trying to be Marlene Dietrich and comes out as Zasu Pitts. I never though Blanchett could be clunky and out-of-place, but I underestimated Soderbergh's capacity for waste.
I always thought that Tobey Maguire was a fine actor, but in The Good German he is embarrassingly inept. As the corrupt driver he gives a performance that seems like a try-out for a high school play. He's out of his league trying to play an adult. Is he trying to be Richard Crenna in Our Miss Brooks?
George Clooney has said he accepted the role in The Good German for one dollar. He should give the money back. In The Good German George Clooney is about as romantic as a post this time out. He has a hard time being "the sexiest man" in the movie even when he's alone in the frame. "The dullest man" maybe. Perhaps Clooney is supposed to conjure up memories of the writer in The Third Man played by Joseph Cotten, but Cotten gave an interesting performance. Clooney doesn't.
It may be time for George Clooney to separate from director/producer Soderbergh with whom he has done a bunch of projects. Soderbergh has turned him into a good ol' cipher.
Soderbergh has a self-absorbed, callow streak that sometimes takes over, (Full Frontal). At his best (Traffic and Erin Brockovich), Soderbergh is a first-rate director, but too often he slides.
Soderbergh's Danny Ocean trilogy may be fun and fanciful, but it's pretty much a waste of time for a first-rate director. In the 21st sequel -- Ocean's 22 -- Danny is going to own a football team in Las Vegas. I can hardly wait.
The script of The Good German by Paul Attanasio from a novel by Joseph Kanon is hapless. It's more careless than clever. It does seem to borrow from Robert Towne's wonderful script for Chinatown.
Like Chinatown, The Good German features a lot of dualities. And both films have characters named Jake. One has a bandage on his nose, the other on his ear. Cute but insubstantial. Like the rest of the film, the script bungles its resources.
The music by Thomas Newman pays homage to old-style music with its swelling and emphasis, but here it is annoying.
When The Good German makes references to The Third Man and Casablanca, it seems even more insipid in comparison. Especially preposterous and laughable is the scene at the airport, which mimics Casabanca.
Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity), Carol Reed (The Third Man), and Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) would shake their heads in dismay. Soderbergh and Clooney might take some pride in their concept -- a movie in black and white, shot in the style of Curtiz and his peers. But there is no way they should take pride in their execution. You can imagine Soderbergh and Clooney thinking: "Aren't we something!" You guys are something, all right.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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