The American, starring George Clooney as an assassin and weapon designer, is not
a bad film. In fact, Roger Ebert gave it four stars.
That being said, you'll almost surely hate it in the unlikely event that you
actually see it.
Here's why: it's a classic bit of 70s Euro-angst; an arty melodrama. It's a slower-than-thou Bergman
movie, except that the tragic deaths come from bullets instead of dread
diseases. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that, except that the trailer
makes the film seem like a thriller. As a result, the people who like art house
films probably won't go to it in the first place because they aren't interested
in seeing glib Hollywood stars in contrived Hollywood-style plots about multiple
assassins. The people who do want to see international assassin thrillers will
hate it because they will have to endure endless, wordless, soundless shots of
George Clooney walking through cobblestone medieval streets, listening to the
sound of his own footsteps - or maybe a second pair - or maybe not - or maybe a
second pair that has a perfectly innocent explanation. It's the UPS guy! Will
Clooney kill him, just for daring to share the streets? Stay tuned. In the
meantime, enjoy some nighttime shots of Clooney walking through those streets,
which are bathed entirely in red light, then green, then yellow, then back to
red. The film's aesthetic is based entirely on traffic signal sequencing.
And then there are the other usual European art-film clichés. There is explicit
nudity (hoorah!) in overlong sex scenes (boo!). There are wordless scenes of Clooney sitting in
cafes, waiting for people to arrive, looking out the windows, on his toes, yet
always taking time for worthwhile flashbacks. There is the
outrageously beautiful and naive prostitute required by movie law to be in every
remote Euro-Podunk. There is the talkative local priest who knows
all, yet harbors secrets of his own. Actually, I'm glad that last stereotype was
included, because without that nosey priest there might have been no dialogue at
all except taciturn exchanges of necessary information, punctuated by the
occasional grunt. To make things even more arty, the screenwriter retooled the
bittersweet ending of the source novel (Martin Booth's "A Very Private
Gentleman") by removing the "sweet" part. As the Europeans like to sing:
"Accentuate the negative. Eliminate the positive."
Just for fun, the film also throws in all the clichés from assassin thrillers! There's
the ol' "one last job" mantra, not to mention "you're losing your edge," and my
own personal favorite, "don't make friends or fall in love."
But despite drawing from both extremes, The American is neither a breath mint
nor a candy mint, neither less filling nor great tasting, neither thriller nor
Oscar-bait. One can't call it a plot-driven thriller because the plot makes no
sense and the characters behave in a baffling manner that is both illogical and
contrary to their best interests. On the other hand, it's not a character-driven
art film because ... well, because we know nothing at all about the laconic characters. What does drive it, if not plot or
character? Atmosphere. It's the kind of film praised by critics and
from film school. Frankly, even they will not get to enjoy it because the
rest of the audience will be snoring.
Of course, snoring will not drown out much dialogue, since The American is practically a silent film. All the
time you thought Clooney wanted to be Cary Grant, but it turns out he really
wanted to be Chaplin.
L.A. Times hit the nail on the head:
"If you haven't heard already, the George Clooney film
"The American" has the dubious distinction of being the No. 1 movie at the box
office this weekend despite having received an abysmal grade of D minus from
CinemaScore, which tracks the reaction of rank-and-file moviegoers to the latest
films. Even worse, the film's target audience -- adults older than 25, who made
up 88% of the audience, gave it an F.
They were propelled into theaters by Clooney's cool-guy
image and the film's slick TV spots, which sold the picture as a taut, "Michael
This is not Clooney's first journey into the depths of CinemaScore. An earlier
Clooney film called Solaris, a remake of a film made by art house demigod Andrei
Tarkovsky, still holds the distinction of having received the lowest ratings in CinemaScore history,
straight Fs from every single demographic grouping!
Unlike Solaris, The American is not without some mainstream appeal. I have to
admit that I liked the first five minutes of the film, and I enjoyed the
last seven minutes except for the final minute with the rewritten ending. You
could make a really great movie by taking those sections and tying them together
with a solid Bond-style plot and some zippy Bourne-style editing.
Unfortunately, they are actually connected by yet another Tarkovsky movie.
You'd think Clooney would have realized from that Solaris experience that Tarkovsky wasn't his fans' cup of tea.
If he were just about anyone else, two disasters of this magnitude would have
consigned him to a B-movie future as Corbin Bernsen's co-star, but fortunately for George C, he's
such a charming, charismatic guy that people always seem to forgive him for
these klunkers and go to his next film with renewed high hopes.
To be fair, the fact that average moviegoers rate such fare with Fs and
D-minuses does not mean that they are bad films. Many cineastes worship
Tarkovsky, and one must admit that Solaris and the middle of The
American are actually pretty good Tarkovsky clones. That may be your thing,
But it's not mine.