Our Rating: 2 out of 5
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Black and white movies remind me of my gran. She loved them. Sitting down with whatever quilt she was working on and a Cary Grant movie was her favorite way to spend an afternoon. It was because of her that I came to know so many beloved actors. Jimmy Stewart. Cary Grant. Humphrey Bogart. Clark Gable. Director Steven Soderbergh wanted to create an old-fashioned movie like the ones I used to watch with her, but I know for a fact that my gran would have come nowhere near this one.
With the war over and Hitler dead, Berlin is desperately attempting to pull itself up from the ashes. Invaded by Americans, most of the natives are either returning to bombed-out homes or attempting to repress their German ancestry. Some of the Americans, however, love the Germans, particularly their beautiful women. One of them is Patrick Tully (Tobey Maguire), who has been assigned as the driver for a New York journalist in town to cover the aftermath. It has been a long time since Captain Geismer (George Clooney) was in Berlin, but his memories of it remain as strong as the day he left. Little does he know that he and his driver have something in common -- the mysterious and beautiful Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett). She worked for him before the war, and is now involved with Tully, who treats her as little more than property. Always out to make a buck or swindle someone out of their hard earned rations, Tully begins to get suspicious when he discovers that Geismer knows his old flame.
One thing leads to another and a body surfaces in the river, leading Geismer to stumble across a governmental conspiracy and cover-up that involves his old flame. With Lena running from her life from brutal assassins, it is up to Geismer to get to the bottom of the complicated affair before one, or both of them, wind up dead. The result is quite a fascinating film, but it is ultimately confusing and a little more obsessed with its self-importance than making the viewer like its leading characters. One thing I will say for it is that it had perfect casting. I have seen Maquire play a lot of "good guy" roles, so it was an unexpected twist to hate him as much as I did twenty minutes in. Blanchett is very good as the secretive woman with much to hide, but Clooney is the best thing about the production. His dramatic presence on screen is brilliant in black and white, a Grant-esque force to be reckoned with.
It's just a shame they didn't have a bit more restraint in the presentation. When I watch a black and white movie, I want to be entertained and reminded of a more innocent age. I do not want graphic scenes or language that my gran would attribute to a "drunken sailor." Tainting a black and white movie with such things, quite frankly, ruins the elegance and classiness of the project. My mind's eye cannot see Cary Grant gussied up in a gorgeous suit spouting the f-word every other sentence. Nor is it accurate. I've never known a world war two veteran to talk like that. There are more of them than I can count, often four or five in a single patch of dialogue, most of it erupting from Tully's foul mouth. Abuse of deity and other profanities intrude. There's one clothed sex scene, a flashback to a rape, and implications of adultery. Characters are shot and killed, or stabbed. A body turns up in the woods. A man punches a woman in the stomach and knocks her to the floor. There's a brutal fistfight between two men.
Restraint, that's what the film needed more than such an impressive cast. It could have been a fantastic film without being so openly offensive, because it had a lot going for it and you rarely get a chance to see a world war two drama anymore presented with such sincerity and class. But when I watch something, I compare its merits to what my gran would have liked or disliked about it, and this one is hard to like. I was so frustrated with the content that I nearly turned it off halfway through, but stuck it out just to see the conclusion. It has a nice twist at the end, and it'll take me a long time to get that marvelous image of George Clooney in an officer's uniform out of my mind, but overall it falls flat. You can see as good of a story with less problematic areas in Casablanca... one of my gran's favorites.