Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The American (2010)

For the first time ever as a blogger I’m reviewing a new film — better look outside to see if the sky is still there! At any rate, I’m not so sure this is a review as much as it is a brief discussion of the pros and cons of George Clooney.

It’s surprising to me in reading critical reaction to Anton Corbijn’s The American that so many viewers consider Clooney to be the saving grace of the melancholy film. While I’ll be the first to admit that without Clooney’s interest in the project it likely doesn’t get made, as far as his presence in the cast is concerned, quite the opposite is the case here — Clooney is the problem. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as much a fan of the actor as the next guy, but he is a man with a very particular set of skills, and what he has to offer isn’t very conducive to this sort of work. Lest ye forget, we are talking about the same guy that got raked over the coals repeatedly during his E.R. days for acting all of his scenes with his head bowed while looking up at his costars. It was Clooney’s go-to “blue steel” back in those days, and well, he went with it often. (It’s also not lost on me that the image of Clooney on the poster for The American finds him exactly this way.) Of course he’s come a long way since then, and with the exception of the career trajectory of one Tom Hanks, it’s fair to suggest that no other performer has come so far.

I actually like to think of him as the modern day Gary Cooper. Like Coop, Clooney is a deliberate performer who does not articulate his performances with a ton of acting tics. He’s cautious, quiet, and deliberate in his movements, yet there’s a quality of self-assuredness resounding in his screen persona that makes him special. While Cooper constantly battled his gangly tallness (in 1938’s The Cowboy and the Lady his character is actually named Stretch), Clooney has to deal with clumsiness. He’s an awkward mover — look closely enough at his films and you’ll see it. George moves so awkwardly that he brings to mind a good-looking Walter Matthau. Watch his flat-footed running in The American, Oh Brother, or Burn After Reading and you’ll see what I mean. The filmmakers try to hide it, as they so often do, but it’s there. In the end, George does his best work in fast films where he’s the placid center around which everything else revolves: Up in the Air, Michael Clayton, Syriana, and so on. In a film such as The American, when nothing else moves, Clooney simply becomes part of the landscape. He just lacks the gravity to capture our imagination through the long sequences of screen time that find his character exploring the small village, or is simply lost in thought. After watching the film, consider instead the role as Sean Penn, Edward Norton, or better yet, a youthful DeNiro or Eastwood may have interpreted it: simmering, vibrant…alive.

This is nevertheless a good film, beautifully rendered and deliberately paced — punctuated with a few well placed action sequences and erotic moments. If given the choice of experiencing the film with Clooney, or not at all, I’ll happily accept it as offered, and wonder.


Finally, let me apologize for the long gap in posts. The film noir poster countdown over at Where Danger Lives consumed a great deal more of my time than I ever imagined, and I was forced to neglect Cin-Eater for a little while. Hopefully I can return to regular posting very soon!

The American (2010)
Directed by Anton Corbijn
Starring George Clooney
Released by Focus Features
Running time: 105 minutes
Availability: Not a problem.


  1. I knew there was a reason that he couldn't be the modern day Cary Grant. He's not graceful enough! I love how certain filmmakers used Coopers awkward height to their advantage--the kissing stool in Ball of Fire comes immediately to mind. There a couple of good examples in Farewell to Arms as well. Anywho, this is a great post. I've been Mooney for Clooney for ages but loath to make the obvious Cary Grant comparison. Like Cooper, he can do comedy and drama equally well (so could Grant, though his serious films, apart from Hitchcock, were never that good.) I never noticed Clooney's awkwardness before, but now I will have an excuse to re-watch O Brother to look for it. Dapper Dan!

  2. I watched Charley Bronson in The Mechanic last week and I noticed his very awkward run. It kind of cracks me up. Never noticed it with Clooney... now I will! The American wasn't bad but I'm not sure if the movie would have survived with the actors you mention. Eastwood did have a movie star presence but Penn and Norton I think would have made the movie a complete snoozer. Star presence does make I difference in my book.

    Gary Cooper and Harrison Ford got away with not doing much (McQueen did too) when they were young and pretty. They had to give more with age.. but they also became kinda boring as they added grey hair. Is Clooney heading that direction?

  3. Perhaps Clooney's strength isn't acting from within, which is what the role in The American demanded. Cooper was a master at (seemingly) doing nothing, and yet giving his character great depth. The long periods of silence, in which Clooney appears to be mulling over his thoughts, fears, concerns, I can imagine a Cooper, a McQueen, a Redford, Viggo Mortensen, Eastwood, adding far more gravity to this character.

    Pacino has many times told of how Lee Strasburg opened his yearly classes at the Actor's Studio by discussing Cooper, calling him the original Method actor. Pacino cites Cooper as one if his inspirations, precisely because he knew how to act from within.