Sometimes, Steven Soderbergh’s experiments lead to something brilliant, such as the gritty, sprawling ensemble saga “Traffic,” which earned him the best-director Academy Award.
Sometimes, his experiments just seem like gimmicks, such as “Full Frontal,” a dramatically unsatisfying tale that he shot for pennies using existing light and requiring his all-star cast to handle their own wardrobe and makeup.
“The Good German,” Soderbergh’s latest collaboration with producing partner and star George Clooney, falls in between, definitely closer to the gimmick end of things despite the filmmaker’s intriguing effort to inject modern sensibilities into old-style black-and-white film noir.
Adapted from Joseph Kanon’s novel set in Berlin soon after World War II, “The Good German” aspires to fit into Hollywood’s subgenre of 1940s war-themed mystery thrillers, with “Casablanca” references and homages especially prominent.
Soderbergh, screenwriter Paul Attanasio and their colleagues get much of the mood and atmosphere down, but they fail — or chose not to try — to emulate the sense of wily playfulness that made old film-noir characters so rich and engaging even against the background of dark and sober stories.
Clooney and most of his co-stars generally are so dour that “The Good German” often drags along lifelessly through what are supposed to be moments of sharp drama. Some of the actors also seem completely out-of-sync with that bygone era, particularly Tobey Maguire, who nicely fit himself into a 1930s persona in “Seabiscuit” but comes off here like a thoroughly modern 21st century kid playing World War II dressup.
The exception is Cate Blanchett, marvelously transforming herself into a haunted creature traumatized by the war, who could fit right into a Hollywood classic alongside Marlene Dietrich or Ingrid Bergman.
“The Good German” casts Clooney as war correspondent Jake Geismar, who ran The Associated Press bureau in Berlin before the war and has returned to cover the Potsdam conference where Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin are meeting.
His Army driver, Cpl. Tully (Maguire), is a fast-talking Midwesterner who tries to ooze charm but clearly is a slimeball, lying, cheating, stealing and trading whatever he can on the black market.
Conveniently, Tully’s girlfriend is Lena Brandt (Blanchett), Jake’s old flame. Already having trouble reconciling the Berlin he once knew with the ruins around him and the opportunism and political maneuvering among the city’s U.S. and Soviet overseers, Jake is floored at the change in Lena, who seems a ghost of her former self and speaks of her guilt for having survived.
Jake is hurled into the center of a murder that neither the Americans or Russians seem to want solved. Investigating on his own, Jake is drawn into the tug-of-war between the victors for one of the war’s most valuable spoils: Control of German scientists who will become integral in the coming Cold War.
To simulate the look and texture of classic film noir, Soderbergh used vintage camera lenses and shot on a Hollywood backlot rather than dashing off to real locations. He also used old-school process shots, inserting the actors in front of backlit scenery.
Soderbergh mixed those throwback methods with dialogue heavy on obscenities, his idea being, what would happen if you blended the look of Hollywood past with harsh language that never would have passed the censors back then?
The result is a bit jarring but not very interesting. It’s not as if we’re suddenly hearing Humphrey Bogart dropping F-bombs. These are recognizably modern performers talking the way we’ve heard them talk before in R-rated flicks.
Where “The Good German” really confounds is in its seemingly sloppy use of light and dark. Composition of shadows were so precise in many glorious old black-and-white films that they looked practically etched onto the screen.
Here, the shadows are so amorphous and omnipresent, they’re distracting. Old film noir often might place an actor’s face in darkness for effect at a pivotal moment, but in “The Good German,” the performers often are swallowed in shadow.
Soderbergh’s a meticulous filmmaker, so he must have had a reason. Yet the pervasive shadows are bothersome enough to yank viewers out of the story again and again.
Blanchett is magnificent, but Clooney is nearly as somber as he was in Soderbergh’s sci-fi dud “Solaris.” Maguire, whether because of his innate boyishness or the imprint of his heroic “Spider-Man” persona, just lacks the weight to play a bad guy.
Beau Bridges, Ravil Isyanov, Robin Weigert and Leland Orser round out a supporting cast that’s solid but uninspired.
The film-noir trappings make you long for some rascals among the bit players. Where would Bogart be if he didn’t have foxy comrades such as Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet or Peter Lorre to play off of?