1945. US war correspondent Jake Geismer (Clooney) arrives in Berlin to cover the Potsdam Peace Conference. Shepherded around town by a genial fixer (Maguire), Geismer is pulled into a nexus of subterfuge involving the black market, V2 rockets and Geismer
One of the great things about awaiting a new Steven Soderbergh movie is that you are never quite sure which Steven Soderbergh is going to show up. There is Steven The Entertainer, a purveyor of smart, snappy, often crime-themed genre entertainments (Out Of Sight, The Limey, Ocean’s Eleven) that have one foot in the filmic entertainments of the past; there is Steven The Worthy, the maker of thought-provoking, issue-driven dramas (Erin Brockovich, Traffic) that manage to invest the messaging with a populist touch; and there is Steven The Experimentalist, an artist who plays with genre, content and form (Kafka, Schizopolis, Solaris, Bubble) without a care in the world for audience approval.
With his latest, based on Joseph Kanon’s doorstep of a novel, all three Soderberghs turn up at once, and the result is an interesting mess. Rather than make a film about the ’40s, Soderbergh has attempted to make a film from the ’40s, a lush thriller/melodrama à la Casablanca, The Third Man and Notorious, shot in Warner Bros. house style. At times, the movie veers into a studied Euro artsiness, all inky blacks and burnt-out whites, but mostly Soderbergh gets the approximation dead right. The spare, up-front credits sequence; the restrained camera moves; the dodgy back-projections; the claustrophobic, shot-on-a-backlot feel are all recreated with a film buff’s affection and care for the telling details. This is pastiche, not parody (which is why a blatant closing airport nod to Casablanca really jars) but, in nailing the minutiae, Soderbergh overlooks the entertainment values that a Jack Warner or Louis B. Mayer would have demanded.
Adding pungency is Soderbergh’s intention to make an old studio picture with modern sensibilities. Paul Attanasio’s screenplay is saturated with disillusionment about American post-War motives, frank dialogue (“Don’t Jew me on the price,” barks Tobey Maguire’s Corporal Tully) and a scene akin to Rick in Casablanca throwing Ilsa on a bed and taking her roughly from behind. But what Soderbergh doesn’t improve upon is character nuance and psychological complexity. He also fails to make the mystery/thriller aspects compelling. There’s interesting noir-ish meat here, but the storytelling feels disengaged, never making you care enough about Geismer’s journey.
The net result is that while the recreation has strong moments (a footchase through an Allied parade works a treat), The Good German is strangely lifeless and remote. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is its cast, who fail to generate any star wattage. Sporting a bandaged ear like another movie Jake in over his head — Gittes from Chinatown — Clooney turns in probably his least charismatic performance to date, failing to convince there is a beating heart under the wiseacre exterior of his shambling shamus. Under a mask of make-up Cate Blanchett fares little better, invoking Dietrich and Garbo but delivering nothing approaching a rounded, believable character. In trying so hard to experiment with bygone styles, Soderbergh and co. have failed to commit to the substance, the spark and the melodrama of the Golden Age. Perhaps the answer lies with a different director. Whatever happened to that guy who made Out Of Sight?
This should have been Soderbergh gold. Instead it is mostly unengaging and dull, proof positive that they dont make them like they used to.