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The Good German

A Laborious Exercise in Style

Director Steven Soderbergh rarely shies from a challenge, making his experimental turn in The Good German, a black-and-white homage to classic film noir, that much less of a surprise. The real surprise is that the experiment yields such mixed results.

It’s easy to admire Soderbergh’s fiercely independent filmmaking, which has produced movies as varied as Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven and, earlier this year, Bubble. But his quest to make a vintage thriller in the tradition of Casablanca, unfettered by the old prohibitions that effectively restrained directors like Michael Curtiz and Billy Wilder, is a noble misfire.

The Good German follows Jake (George Clooney), an American correspondent assigned to cover the 1945 Potsdam conference attended by Truman, Churchill and Stalin, as he vainly searches for leads. Escorted through the ruins of postwar Berlin by a thuggish driver named Tully (Tobey Maguire), Jake is also on the lookout for Lena (Cate Blanchett), an old flame with a shady past. He catches up to her, but her reaction isn’t exactly welcoming. “You should never have come back to Berlin,” she tells him.

Undeterred, Jake continues to hunt for clues, only to stumble onto the corpse of an American G.I. Determined to solve the murder like the hard-nosed sleuth he thinks himself to be, he bounces around, poking his nose where it doesn’t belong and dutifully taking his share of beatings -- at one point, wearing a bandage that recalls Jack Nicholson’s in Chinatown. Meanwhile, he continues to burn with desire for Lena, who is involved in a tempestuous affair with none other than Tully. In the final shot of the film, an obvious tribute to Casablanca, Jake shares one last moment with his departing love on an airport tarmac.

Despite Soderbergh’s elaborately conceived atmosphere, nicely replicating the time and the place, the narrative drags throughout, and the performances don’t help. Maguire is unconvincing as a soulless tough, while Clooney seems uncharacteristically tentative in the Humphrey Bogart role. Only Blanchett, whose slyly seductive smile and icy stare barely conceal the devil within, seems at home in the role she inhabits.

With its old-fashioned lighting and minimalist camerawork, Soderbergh achieves the look of the movies he’s paying tribute to, but not the feel. The Good German is an ambitious technical exercise, but it bears only superficial similarities to its stylistic predecessors, including Casablanca and The Third Man.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars