Thursday, September 9, 2010

The American: State of Ennui

The American (2010) • View trailer for The American
Two stars (out of five). Rated R for nudity, sexuality and violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in the The Davis Enterprise, 09.9.10
Buy DVD: The American • Buy Blu-Ray: The American [Blu-ray]

Goodness, what a stiff. 

Not even George Clooney's considerable charm can inject any life into The American, probably the dullest, dreariest drama he's ever made. Ironically, he isn't even well cast; the part calls for a degree of stoic amorality that Clooney can't quite deliver. His signature eye twinkle can't help emerging every so often, and that's wrong-wrong-wrong for this guy. 

This is a muddy, morbid little affair, the sort of European production that Hollywood stars sometimes embrace, in an effort to stretch their talents or reputation. In fairness, the project isn't entirely out of character for Clooney; whether in Syriana, Michael Clayton or Up in the Air, he has based a chunk of his career on morally troubled individuals in need of redemption. 

Jack (George Clooney) watches while Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) tests
the high-powered rifle that he has built to her precise specifications.
Both characters handle this scene with the clinical detachment that
infects the entire film; if they can't be interested in their own behavior,
why should we be any different?
Jack, the protagonist in screenwriter Rowan Joffe's adaptation of Martin Booth's novel, A Very Private Gentleman  a vastly superior title, just in passing  certainly has reached the end of his emotional tether. That'd be an expected career handicap for professional assassins, who live with the certain knowledge that one day they'll lose their edge and likely become the first target of their replacements. 

Unfortunately, Clooney doesn't give Jack enough depth to make us care what happens to him, and I'm also not persuaded that he either seeks or deserves salvation. Even worse, director Anton Corbijn maintains a pace so lethargic that his film flat-out stops at times. 

I'm not the slightest bit surprised to learn that Corbijn has a 35-year background as a portrait photographer; this film frequently feels like a still life. 

Honestly, how much time can we spend watching Jack hole up in his tiny apartment, trying  and frequently failing  to sleep? 
Conveying rising paranoia in a claustrophobic setting is tricky; few directors have pulled it off successfully. Roman Polanski's Repulsion comes to mind; Catherine Deneuve certainly held our attention while losing her mind over the course of a few days in her dark and unsettling flat. 

But Polanski helps convey this woman's rising madness with fascinating visuals, and Deneuve's character also goes through visible changes; she literally comes unglued as we watch. Repulsion never ceases to be compelling (and very, very creepy). 

Clooney, on the other hand, looks agitated when we first meet him; his demeanor never really changes. Add Corbijn's sluggish pacing, and the result is yawning tedium. 

Think back to Jack Nicholson, who was already a barking lunatic when he checked into the hotel in The Shining. With nowhere fresh to advance such a character as the story progresses, we rapidly lose interest. 

Events begin as Jack  probably not his real name  relaxes in Sweden with attractive company (Irina Bjorklund), after having completed an unspecified assignment. His instincts forever on alert, he tumbles to the presence of two lurking killers; moments later, the woman is dead and Jack is on the run. 

His handler, reached via telephone, sends Jack to a small town in Italy's attractive countryside (a setting that gives Corbijn an excuse for countless tiresome shots of a lone car on a twisty road). Jack disobeys instructions slightly; he holes up in the next town, and periodically returns to the first, solely to use its public phone booth, thus conveying the impression that he has followed orders. 

A clever touch. Alas, it's the only remotely interesting move Jack makes. 

A fresh assignment comes up: Jack is to build a high-powered rifle to the precise specifications of an enigmatic contact, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). These conversations are mildly interesting in a clinical sense: the specifications for range and stopping power, the window of time available for assembling the weapon, the need for noise suppression. 

Money changes hands; Mathilde vanishes for a bit. She looks quite different each subsequent time she checks in, leading us to suspect that she isn't merely a courier, but an assassin herself. 

Jack goes to work, his precise and demanding task subject to a pair of distractions: occasional visits with a perceptive and kindly local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli); and torrid liaisons with the world's most attractive prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido). 

Jack finds himself developing feelings for the latter, which he knows to be unwise, as he's still haunted by nightmares of what happened in Sweden. 

Thank God for Bonacelli (no pun intended); he injects some life into this wearisome affair. Father Benedetto is a fully rounded character, and pretty much the only one we can take at face value. 

The priest misses very little, and quickly senses that Jack carries a burden of sin. But Jack isn't willing to play this game, and Clooney's monosyllabic responses rebuff the priest and us viewers: merely more lost opportunities, in terms of this film delivering any actual emotional heft. 

Placido is engaging enough on a superficial level, and she certainly slides out of her clothes with a provocatively erotic lack of modesty. But prostitutes are the world's oldest role-players, and it's hard to know how to read Clara. Sure, Placido is cute and cuddly  she positively sparkles at one point, when Clara and Jack have dinner together  but the actress lacks the acting chops to give her role any depth. 

Based on Corbijn's handling of their first torrid love scene, Clara must be "genuine" because she allows Jack to bring her to climax ... but that's a pretty thin frame on which to hang an entire psychological wardrobe. 

Bonacelli, in contrast, conveys a wealth of Father Benedetto's background and personality with even the briefest of remarks. 

Time ... passes. Slowly. The narrative staggers fitfully to life briefly, when Jack finally does something about the shadowy individual who has dogged his movements for days: a flurry of activity leading to a brutal encounter. 

The story's logic begins to unravel, right about now. Why would this sinister individual wait so long before making his move? Why wouldn't he simply shoot Jack during any one of the many times that Clooney sits, brooding into his glass, at the bar/cafe across from his apartment? 

The setting is alluring enough, the claustrophobic walkways and alleys of the medieval village contrasted by this mountainous region east of Rome, spreading from the base of the Apennine mountains toward the Adriatic Sea. This isn't the "pretty" Italy of Tuscany or Umbria, so frequently used in movies; the terrain is rugged and rocky, not of interest to tourists, and somewhat bleak in a way that mirrors Jack's soul. 

Herbert Gronemeyer's score is as dull and colorless as Clooney's performance. 

The script is pedestrian at best. Joffe has absolutely no affinity for this sort of psychologically deep material: no surprise that his previous effort was the superficial and wholly exploitative failed horror sequel, 28 Weeks Later

Joffe's efforts at symbolism have the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Jack has a butterfly tattoo on his back  we never learn why  that prompts Clara to dub him "Mr. Butterfly." During a meeting with Mathilde, as she and Jack test his new weapon in a deserted wood, a butterfly lands on her arm. 

"It's endangered," Jack comments, for no particular reason. (And he would know this how, precisely?) 

Wow, that's deep. Class, can you spell "foreshadow"? 

Although initially surprised to see a George Clooney film dumped into the doldrums of late summer  without the benefit of any previews  the reasons became clear after having endured it. Focus Films knew this was a stinker, but Clooney's high profile demanded some sort of mainstream release. 

I hope movie fans had the good sense, instead, to spend their long Labor Day weekend with Danny Trejo and the goofy, guilty pleasures of Robert Rodriguez's Machete

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