Steven Soderbergh is the sort of director who doesn’t just make a film – he crafts a project. If his results are hit-or-miss, at least he’s consistently interesting.
“The Good German,” his latest labor of love, is a full-blown homage to the beautiful black and white of ’40s postwar noir cinema, though it doesn’t so much emulate its predecessors as borrow directly from them. A chiaroscuro sewer sequence directly recalls Carol Reed’s “The Third Man,” and the “Casablanca”-ripped ending clubs you over the head. Amusing as a collage may be for the observant movie lover, this plundering of classic cinema makes the film feel uneven and gimmicky.
The place is Berlin, the year is 1944, and George Clooney is Jake Geismer, a U.S. war correspondent back in town to take care of some unfinished business. The plot devolves into a confusing mix of betrayals and mistaken identities, connecting Jake’s German ex-flame (Cate Blanchett), her smarmy boyfriend (a typecast Tobey Maguire) and many possible political patsies.
Though the film is based on the well-liked novel by Joseph Kanon, the story is beside the point. This is about style and, to Soderbergh’s credit, there’s plenty of it. Clooney has never looked jauntier, and Blanchett, draped against a doorjamb with the weary eyes of a modern Marlene Dietrich, exudes enough heat from her printed housedress to hook you from her first frame. Filtered through shadows and cigarette smoke, Soderbergh presents high-contrast black and white of which those ’40s filmmakers could have only dreamed.
It’s too bad he forgets substance. “The Good German” could easily have leaped the stilted bounds of its overly convoluted plot if the two leads had the chemistry their emphasized relationship implies. But sparks never fly; the involved parties just seem like game participants in a novel little experiment.
Soderbergh’s creative nostalgia ends up a worthwhile exercise in old-school film technique, but his respectful nod to the past never culls together an identity of its own.
The Good German
At the Showcase
Rating: 2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars