I doubt that I am the first to make this observation, but through the duration of The Good German I was continuously struck by how much it reminded me of Sin City: both are movies with multiple A-list actors, both are ambitious, both are stylish in their filming, and neither has much to recommend them beyond the style.
The centerpiece of The Good German is George Clooney, playing American Press Corps reporter Jake Geismer, in Berlin to cover the Potsdam conference of 1945 between Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, and Josef Stalin. The driver assigned to him is young Army captain Patrick Tully (Tobey Maguire), who, as it turns out, has been running around with Geismer’s old girlfriend Lena (Cate Blanchett). Deliberately reminiscent of the great films noir of the 1950s- director Stephen Soderbergh resurrected the old focal-lens cameras of the day and shoots the entire movie in black and white – The Good German follows Geismer as he sets out trying to solve a murder and understand the actions of the American military in postwar Germany.
Style can only take a movie so far, though, and even before one gets to the actors and the story one can’t help but feel frustrated by Soderbergh’s inconsistency: his film looks and acts like it was made in the ’50s, but his script doesn’t, including copious cursing and nudity that one would never find in the movies he tries to emulate. The result is a jarring sort of anachronism, and it’s hard to feel anything but that if Soderbergh was going to make a film noir he should have gone the whole way with it; by allowing the vestiges of contemporary filmmaking to slip in he gains nothing and loses a great deal.
The Good German takes its time getting started; at first I was a little confused as to what was going on. After the first twenty minutes, though, the film gains a little focus, and though I question plot and directorial choices (the film’s use of voiceover is particularly tiresome) what emerges is a tepid film. It’s not bad, but it’s not particularly good either. At the very least Soderbergh tried, though, and for that one must give him credit.
There isn’t a whole lot to be said about the acting in the movie, beyond that Tobey Maguire is woefully miscast – it’s almost painful to hear him say his lines because he?s so unconvincing. Although Clooney is a good actor, and there?s nothing wrong with him here, exactly, there?s no point during the film that we?re watching Jake Geismer and not George Clooney, and this is a problem because George Clooney is in many ways an embodiment of masculinity and Jake Geismer is at times, to use the colloquial term, a pussy.
Blanchett, whose performance is characterized by a certain cynicism that seems somehow just right for he character, is easily the best of the three individually. However, there is no chemistry between her and Clooney, and so there’s nothing to make the story’s driving force believable. Fine a performance though it is, in the face of this it becomes irrelevant.
Soderbergh commits a cardinal sin in the last few minutes with his almost shot-for-shot replication of the final scene of Casablanca, tempered, of course, by the film’s indecision about whether it’s a contemporary film or a film noir. In the end, it?s not bad, but it doesn?t live up to what it pays homage to. The result is a mediocre film that doesn’t end up going anywhere.
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