Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Emperor's New Clothes?

[Lots of spoilers here] Sometimes a movie is so annoying you wonder whether it's the movie that's the problem or your understanding of it.  Such is the case with The American, a European movie starring George Clooney (he also co-produced it, along with three women and one other man).   Roger Ebert thought it was great, Sam Adams at Salon.com is more pro than against, as is Michael Atkinson in Sight & Sound - though whether the following sentence actually makes sense I'm not sure:  it’s mature, fastidiously logical (and therefore skimpy) with exposition, and patient, and arguably this is what audiences have responded to.  

Okay, well this member of the 'audience' didn't respond to it.  Nor did my wife.   And both of us found the almost total lack of exposition and information irritating rather than 'fastidiously logical.'  In fact, logical is about the last thing this movie is.  Okay, in terms of the main character it's logical that his personality, from which the emotions have almost entirely left home, will eventually cause the hell he lives in (as the local priest notes) to consume him.  Unfortunately for Clooney's character, it consumes him just as he's possibly finding a kind of salvation, a way out to life again, and that's so typically European art house in its approach that it's utterly predictable. 

Clooney plays an assassin who also happens to be a top-notch assembler of made-to-order guns.  There's a lot of fiddling around with the making of a particular gun, which has been ordered by an unlikely female assassin who's working for somebody anonymous.  After a violent and surprising opening scene, the movie moves at a snail's pace.  Clooney, at the behest of his boss, goes and lives in a small Italian village (very picturesque, it must be admitted) where he refuses to be contactable, and only rings the boss when he wants.  He claims to know nothing of machinery, but it's so patent a lie that the parish priest, who keeps turning up whenever needed for the script, tells him so to his face.  He meets up with the female assassin in a ridiculously obvious way in an outdoor and very public cafe, gets his specific orders, presumably orders the basics of the gun somehow (he's obviously not into the Internet, which in this film might not exist), and finds the odds and ends to adapt it so that the gunshot sound is suppressed if not silenced.  In order to do the latter he visits a local mechanic (who happens to be the priest's son, though that has almost nothing to do with the story) and, for some reason when left alone in the mechanic's tumbledown workshop, goes round surreptitiously collecting a pile of odds and ends.  When the mechanic catches him at this, he offers to pay for them and the mechanic says he doesn't need to.  Okay....  This scene is done as though there was a Hitchcock element to it.  There isn't. 

Back home he makes up the suppresser out of all these bits, though why he's chosen to live in a place where there's so little access to the parts is a bit of a puzzle.  He takes the gun through its paces with the other assassin in a remote place by a river, and everyone's happy.  Except that the Swedes are still trying to kill him, as they were at the beginning.  Who knows why.   Very slowly, he falls in love with a local prostitute, who, in typical European movie-style, spends most of her on-screen time with the majority of her clothes off for no good reason except that she looks as good with them off as on.  He picnics with her in the same spot he showed off the gun, and it seems possible he might kill her too, but somehow he pulls himself back from the brink.  He's constantly suspicious of people sitting in cars outside cafes.  

Finally, he delivers the completed gun to the female assassin in an isolated cafe, where everything is made to seem more mysterious than it really is, and we gather that for some reason she's going to kill him.  She misses her chance, he drives off into the village again where they're holding some Marian feast-day.  She kills his landlady, (why wasn't she watching the procession?), hides on the roof, targets him and the girl as they're conveniently talking - and standing - in the crowd, and just as she's about to shoot, is shot herself - by the boss.  Huh?  All that time and energy getting a gun sorted out to kill Clooney and she gets killed by the one giving all the orders?  What has she done?  

Clooney prowls the streets (he does this a lot in this movie), which are suddenly surprisingly empty given that a procession was taking place a few moments before, and of course is followed by the boss.  There's a little shoot-out, the boss is killed and Clooney is wounded.  He drives back to the river place where he'd told the girl to meet him (she gets there on foot apparently, even though it's miles away, because there's no other car in sight), Clooney drives in dying, and dies.   

The thing is inexpressibly silly, as were so many movies of the period when telling the audience almost nothing was considered an arty approach.  Clooney is excellent, as always, and obviously felt there was something in the script to make it worth his while.  But the problem is, there isn't anything in the script.  Apart from the minimalist redemption of the main character, all the other Hitchcockian tricks are smoke and whatever-the-expression-is.  People die and are left behind without a single police presence throughout.  The news of the first three deaths is headlined in a newspaper days after the event (and by headlined I mean it takes up the entire page), though why three deaths in Scandinavia would be especially important to the Italians I'm not sure.  In another random headline, 'two more prostitutes are killed' - what prostitutes?  Certainly none in this story, and the only reason for this bit of nonsense is to make us think Clooney is going to kill the girl he's fallen for.  And again, the headline and story take up the whole front page. 

I could go on, but I won't, even though the movie continues to annoy me.   It obviously hasn't done Clooney's career any harm, and in fact it's actually done quite well in America where you'd hardly think it would get noticed.  But Clooney's made some much better low-key movies than this, and I think mentioning the Emperor's new clothes might be appropriate at this point....
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