From its handsome black-and-white images and heavy use of shadows to its low-key lighting and back-projected car backgrounds, “The Good German” is a loving tribute to the noir melodramas of the 1940s and 50s. It’s a shame that the film can’t muster the emotional weight that marks the best of those movies.
Blame the dense script by Paul Attanasio (adapted from the novel by Joseph Kanon) and a detached performance by George Clooney. As war correspondent Jake Geismer, returning to occupied post-WWII Berlin for the first time since war broke out, Clooney gets smacked around as much as Bogart was in “The Big Sleep,” but he never quite connects with the character like Bogie did. Trying hard to be unflappable, the usually charming Clooney instead comes off as unconvincing.
Tobey Maguire, on the other hand, is just plain unsettling. His character Tully is a smarmy, two-faced Army driver who uses the dicey political climate in a divided Berlin to his advantage. He’s a lying, brutish racist who plays the Russians and Americans against each other for his own gain. Where the films made during the Production Code would subtly suggest these traits, Maguire shows them all onscreen, punching women and having violent sex. It’s even more unusual because the other side of Tully’s character is a fake goody two-shoes persona we have seen Maguire do in other films (“Spider-Man,” “Pleasantville”). As jarring as his portrayal may be, it’s clear he relishes the opportunity to play against type.
Out of the three leads, only Cate Blanchett seems to realize what kind of movie she’s in, disappearing completely into the role of Lena Brandt, an abused prostitute with whom Jake had a relationship with before the war. She effortlessly slides into speaking German and back into a husky, accented English. Blanchett strikes just the right balance between a mysterious, sultry character and a woman trying to survive and persevere—everything a femme fatale should be.
The moral hypocrisy that the United States and Russia exhibited in their mad dash to bring brilliant Nazi scientists to their side after the war is fertile ground for an interesting film, but “The Good German” works neither as political intrigue or doomed love story. Blanchett and Clooney never gel, so a bittersweet finale that straight-up rips off “Casablanca” falls particularly flat.
It couldn’t have been easy for Clooney to be credible with dialogue that is overflowing with exposition and a point-of-view that changes with each of its three narrators. Attanasio’s script lacks the punch of old Hollywood films. “The Good German” evokes classic Hollywood, but ultimately is a game of dress-up that’s as convincing as the Wild West photo booth at Worlds of Fun. It works neither as political intrigue or doomed love story.
Never has nondescript dialogue been so offensive as it is here, where every other stylistic detail from yesteryear is matched to perfection. What “The Good German” really makes you want to do is rent “Casablanca,” where scenes had both clever wordplay and subtext. The conversations in Steven Soderbergh’s tribute are hindered by the amount of plot details they must communicate in every scene and an almost inert sense of drama.
“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she had to walk into mine.”
That’s Humphrey Bogart from “Casablanca.”
“I didn’t expect to run into her. Not that way, not my first week in town.”
That’s George Clooney delivering virtually the same sentiment in “The Good German.” Not exactly the most memorable of lines, is it? If there’s one thing this movie proves, it’s that they really don’t write ‘em like they used to.