Everyone can attest to the fact that “The American” is a beautiful movie to look at. The gorgeous Italian countryside, the charming architecture, and the suave George Clooney coupled with some elegant cinematography make Anton Corbijn’s sophomore directorial venture seem like the film adaptation of a coffee-table book.
But really, Corbijn only wants you too look at the surface of his movie. Unfortunately, anything beneath that is a virtually void space, and whatever material does still lie down there is incredibly vapid. There’s nothing wrong with staying all in the visual and never delving into the visceral. However, a point does exist where being so excruciatingly emotionally reserved just comes off as superficial.
With its paper-thin plot, “The American” could have been a ten-minute movie in the hands of Michael Bay. Clooney gets to play an angst-ridden version of 24‘s Jack Bauer (coincidentally also named Jack), a merciless killer but tender soul. He leaves comfortable living in Sweden after being discovered to take a vague final assignment building a murder weapon in Italy.
The movie chugs along like molasses for 100 minutes, familiarizing us with Jack’s routine but never Jack himself. We are kept at such a distance from any sort of emotion that it watching the movie feels like looking at a painting. It’s an implausibly orderly universe that the characters inhabit, where every house and restaurant is tidily organized and every street is appropriately deserted. There’s also that same sense of calm and placidity that art-gazing provides; the theater chairs in need of WD-40 wound up being noisier than the movie itself.
An art-house movie that puts the emphasis on making beautiful art rather than pleasing the house is not any sort of criminal act. Every frame exudes enough precision and expertise to keep all eyes drawn to it. The problem is that Corbijn tells the story through tactics so subtle that they become obvious. Before taking up filmmaking, he was an accomplished photographer, and his knack for the still frames is remarkable. Endowing that same stillness on the silver screen, however, inspires an awe laced with sleepiness and boredom. B- /
I really have no idea what to say about “The American,” but I know there has to be something to say.
Looking at the poster, we see a giant George Clooney. That’s what Focus Features wants you to see because the rest of the poster (and the trailers as well) give you zero clue what the movie is supposed to be about. He’s an assassin, as we might deduce from the gun, but no peeking at plot has given me any insight into the events of the movie. Which may be just what Focus wants. Hey, I’m not complaining about a movie shrouded in mystery.
In the past five years, Clooney has become a dominant force in Oscar season. With three nominations for acting under his belt since 2005 (four if you count his Best Director nomination); the only people to match that total in the same amount of time are Philip Seymour Hoffman, Cate Blanchett, Penelope Cruz, and the legendary Meryl Streep. So we have to assume that anything Clooney stars in nowadays is an Oscar contender – although look at the mistake we made with “The Men Who Stare At Goats.” If the Best Actor field is particularly weak this year, the Academy could easily sneak in a familiar face like Clooney.
The cast may become an issue in awards season. The problem isn’t that the movie stars George Clooney; it’s that the movie stars George Clooney and no one else you’ve ever heard of before. ”The American” is being sold almost entirely on Clooney, a little bit on Corbijn for those whose moviegoing tastes are far enough off the beaten path to recognize his name. So if Clooney isn’t at the top of his game, the whole movie’s chances may be derailed.
This is just Anton Corbijn’s second film, but he’s been behind the camera for quite a while, making music videos for groups as well known as Nirvana and U2. Prior to that, he spent time behind a different lens doing music photography. He still keeps up his first profession, albeit as a hobby, chronicling the production of “The American.” Corbijn kept up a photo blog during production, posting some really interesting shots. In the very near future, he will release them in a picture book called “Inside The American.”
His first feature, “Control,” about the lead singer of the band Joy Division, premiered at Cannes in 2007 to great reviews. It opened theatrically later that year to very respectable critical marks, a 78 on Metacritic and an 87% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Across the pond in Britain, it won Best Film and Best Director among others at their equivalent of the Indie Spirit Awards, the British Independent Film Awards.
Despite these laurels, “Control” didn’t exactly ignite here, failing to earn a release over 30 theaters or a revenue over $1 million. Not that money really matters that much, especially in the context of a directorial debut. Last year’s Oscar winner for Best Director, Kathryn Bigelow, made only $3 million with her first film, “Near Dark,” in 1987.
The bar has been set high, at least in terms of quality, for Corbijn’s follow-up. First films usually don’t receive much notice at the Oscars, the rare exception coming, ironically, for the George Clooney vehicle “Michael Clayton,” which received nominations for Best Picture and Best Director for Tony Gilroy. Second films, however, have been able to gain traction. Let’s look at last year’s Best Director nominees and their second films.
Winner Kathryn Bigelow made her second film, “Near Dark,” in 1987. A vampire movie can become a cult favorite, but it’s certainly very hard to take seriously as an Oscar movie.
James Cameron made his second film, “The Terminator,” in 1984. Wildly under-appreciated at the time, it’s now a classic, enshrined in the National Film Registry.
Quentin Tarantino made his second film, “Pulp Fiction,” in 1994. It is considered by some to be a watershed movie in the history of independent film and got Tarantino an Oscar nomination for his directorial work. The movie also won Best Original Screenplay and was nominated for Best Picture.
Jason Reitman made his second film, “Juno,” in 2007. The movie was nominated for Best Picture, and Reitman was a surprise announcement for a Best Director nomination.
Lee Daniels made his second film, “Precious,” in 2009. The movie was nominated for Best Picture, and Daniels was nominated for Best Director.
See, it does happen! Second films have found great success, both for the movie and for the director. The question is whether “The American” will trod the glorious path in 2010 or march its way into (potentially momentary) obscurity. There has yet to be a review of the movie, so the path truly is unknown.
BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Actor (George Clooney)
OTHER POSSIBLE NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography