The Good German

Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire.
Can you name the odd one out?

Soderbergh couldn’t and that’s why The Good German and that’s why the movie got stuck with Tobey Maguire.
I’ve never disliked Maguire before, but here he stuck out like a sore thumb from the first second. Doesn’t his face fit in a black and white movie about post-war Berlin? Maybe. He was also in Pleasantville, you know, but there he had to play a guy from our times getting stuck in a 50s sitcom.

While we’re at it, let’s review the other leads. Clooney is good throughout the movie and delivers the best performance in the movie. Which sounds a bit odd as it’s Cate Blanchett who is sometimes excellent as Lena (yes Cate, I rolled out the bold font just for you) and never acts less than good throughout the movie, but in the really long dialogues you have an occasional moment where you can hear she’s not really German.
Nevertheless, it was nice to see her in a better movie after Notes on a Scandal.

The Good German has been compared to Casablanca by everyone (mind you, with a scene like the one pictured above, Soderbergh was asking for it), but Casablanca wasn’t the first movie I was thinking of when The Good German started: no, my thoughts went out to Hitler Dead or Alive and the first movie shot in post-war Berlin (of which I really can’t remember the title, sadly).
Because Soderbergh mixes his film with archive footage to create a convincing atmosphere. If The Good German is a Casablanca it’s Ed Wood’s Casablanca.

Not that I want to insult Soderbergh by comparing him to Ed Wood or Al Adamson: Soderbergh definitely did a good job mixing archive footage (and backgrounds) with new scenes, but then again, he must’ve had a bigger budget than poor old Ed and Al.

Blanchett biking in BerlinSoderbergh has already done a couple of remakes: he remade the film noir Criss Cross into The Underneath and George Clooney starred in Soderbergh’s version of the classic Tarkovsky Solaris.
Now whereas Criss Cross isn’t that known and Solaris is better known in certain scenes (it’s a very long movie in Russian, after all), Casablanca is a genuine classic you still find in top tens worldwide (even the pisspoor IMDb Top 10 features it at number 7, be it after the incredbile overrated Pulp Fiction). The criticism you didn’t hear when Soderbergh made The Underneath and became significantly louder during Solaris has now grown to a loud and disapproving roar.
And it’s true, it’s an act of hybris (there are never too many Greek words in a review) to link your movie to a classic.

Having said that, I found The Good German owing more to a film noir than to Casablanca, but I didn’t think the references to Casablanca were necessary. Had they been more subtle or just not present at all, the new Soderbergh wouldn’t be left alone more and perhaps been better. After all, you do end up comparing it to Casablanca and it’s not a comparison The Good German can handle.

The Good German stars Clooney as antihero Geismer who returns to Berlin to find his driver Tully (Maguire) be the lover of Lena (Blanchett), a German woman. Guess what, Geismer and Lena happen to know each other. Guess what, Tully is a corrupt bastard (so we’re told, I really couldn’t believe it myself), but do not despair: Tully soon ends up dead. (Do notice how the movie significantly improves when Maguire is out of the picture.)
And then more stuff happens and it gets harder to see who’s good and who’s not.
If I don’t sound too positive about the synopsis, it’s because the script isn’t too special. It’s not bad, but it’s not good either. Apparently more attention was dedicated to how the movie looked than how bony the script was.
Again, that’s a shame for a movie that compares itself to Casablanca.

The Good German is definitely a mixed bunch and though there are as many good things to say about the picture as there are reasons not to go and see it, there’s just enough effort in this that makes it worth a look.
6/10 is my verdict.


3 thoughts on “The Good German

  1. deeopey July 15, 2009 / 22:32

    Soderbergh is always a great hope, finally a director who accepts the need to do commercial entertainment work but uses it to fund more interesting stuff. I wonder about so many others that apparently don’t have the same passion for film. Once they become bankable on some franchise they seem to lose the drive to other things.

    Shame this one wasn’t quite up to scratch.

  2. kurtodrome July 15, 2009 / 22:35

    I think the main problem with Soderbergh is that he’s so prolific (see also Kim Ki Duk).

    For me Soderbergh’s problems started with Erin Brockovich/Traffic. Both could’ve been better if he’d spent a little more time and thought.

    For the other end of the spectrum… Erik van Looy and Takeshi Kitano make popular games shows in Belgium and Japan. This allows Erik Van Looy (De Zaak Alzheimer/The Alzheimer Case) to wait till there’s enough funds to make a new film for a considerable budget and Takeshi Kitano to make films Japan isn’t waiting for but that he’s eager to direct.

  3. deeopey July 15, 2009 / 22:38

    Over-prolific or not I still like the idea that our top directors are driven to create. I mean they are living the dream that film makers all across the world are aspiring to. I just don’t like the idea that they get fat and lazy at their jobs the same as the rest of us. 🙂

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