Wednesday, September 1, 2010
“The American” (opening September 1 in select San Diego theaters) is George Clooney’s “Eat Pray Love.” I couldn’t swallow Julia’s self-indulgent spree and the same goes for Clooney’s.
In “The American” Clooney plays a professional assassin but a free agent and one with a hint of a conscience. But he’s getting older and having a midlife crisis. So he chucks his current girlfriend, heads off to Italy, befriends a priest, falls in love with a hooker, and makes some realizations about what he wants in life. Okay it’s not exactly Julia Roberts’ journey of self discovery but Clooney eats in Italy, nearly prays with the priest, and despite protestations of being fine on his own he ultimately finds love. But it is a scarily similar story arc just with more killing (maybe it's his "Eat Prey Love") and some prettier scenery. And like “Eat Pray Love,” “The American” is thoroughly predictable and annoying.
From about ten minutes into “The American” you pretty much know exactly what’s going to happen. This is as much a formula film as “Eat Pray Love” only it’s a dick flick rather than a chick one. “The American” delivers all the formula elements you’d expect from a film about a paid killer. Early on Clooney’s Jack has to kill an innocent person just to show how ruthless, efficient, professional he is. Later we get the “sleeping scene” where Jack’s startled by a noise and wakes up abruptly with gun cocked and ready to kill any real or imagined intruder. We also get the foreshadowing of his fate by having Jack be obsessed with butterflies and spotting a rare endangered one that symbolizes his own endangered status. Oh and in case you still don’t get the connection; he even has a butterfly tattoo on his back.
We also get the obligatory montages: a workout one (to show his dedication to routine and fitness) and one focusing on his construction of a gun. All these scenes are tried and true from any number of spy/hired killer/assassin films. Plus they are all delivered with stale familiarity by director Anton Corbijn.
Corbijn comes to this project with some interesting credentials. He directed the acclaimed indie film “Control” about Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. That film took the rock biopic and reinvigorated it with beautiful black and white photography, a distinct sense of place and socioeconomic status, and an intense focus on character detail. But Corbijn can’t find a way to refresh this genre as he did with “Control.” With “The American” he’s painting by numbers and being very careful to stay within the lines. That makes for a handsomely mounted production with solid performances but very little life or interest.
Having this film open the same weekend as “Machete” raises some interesting comparisons. They are like flip sides of a coin. Both are essentially action films about men facing personal crises and having to resort to violence to resolve them. But “The American” feigns European, art house airs while “Machete” is unabashedly low budget and B-movie. Both films also try to couch contemporary politics within their genre conventions. The difference, however, is that in “Machete” Robert Rodriguez pulls off his political commentary with sly humor and affection for all the formula restrictions. Corbijn, on the other hand, gets caught up in pretension as characters make veiled references to American foreign policy.
Plus Rodriguez knows how to play off his genre and pay tribute to all the films that came before. But Corbijn lacks the confidence and/or the knowledge to do the same. When he references Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, he blatantly has someone point out that hey that’s a Sergio Leone movie playing on the TV and that guy’s Italian. The call out is meant to draw parallels of sorts between Jack and the characters in Leone’s film. Although the clip is from “Once Upon a Time in America,” Corbijn does seem to want to link Clooney’s American more with the American played by Clint Eastwood in Leone’s Man With No Name film series – semi-anonymous killers who are damn good at their work.
Another contrast between “The American” and “Machete” is between the lead actors. Clooney is a Hollywood star slumming a bit in this indie, modestly budgeted film. But the film is all about him. No one else is recognizable. He is the star of this film even if the film is pretending to be something more egalitarian. Plus Clooney’s off-screen politics color the film as well. In “Machete,” however, we have character actor and frequent heavy Danny Trejo finally stepping up to a starring role. Coming up from Hollywood’s lowly supporting ranks gives an edge to his performance. In the case of “Machete,” it’s clever casting that works to enhance the film. But in the case of “The American,” the casting works against the film, making Clooney stand out much the same way that Julia Roberts did in “Eat Pray Love.” Both Clooney and Roberts can be capable performers but in these recent films they come across more as Hollywood celebrities than actors.
“The American” (rated R for violence, sexual content and nudity) has some occasional nice moments, such as the scenes with the pragmatic priest and the scenes of Jack showing his craftsman skills. But overall, “The American” is just pretty and bland.
Companion viewing: “Day of the Jackal,” “The Bourne Identity,” “The Professional”