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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
We're Not in Casablanca Anymore
by Betty Jo Tucker

What happened to Rick and Ilsa after Casablanca? We can only hope they faced something better than the fate of Jake and Lena in The Good German, a 2006 movie trying to look and sound like that 1942 Hollywood classic. Not a bad idea, of course, but a bit of a misfire for director Steven Soderbergh who, under two different pseudonyms, also did the editing and cinematography for this ambitious project starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett. The noir style works here, but the characters and story fail to grab us like they did -- and still do -- while watching  Casablanca.

Set in post-WW2 Berlin, The Good German focuses on Jake Geismer (Clooney), a military journalist assigned to cover the Potsdam Conference. Jake worked in Berlin before the war, and he hopes to find Lena Brandt (Blanchett), a stringer he had an affair with at that time. Unfortunately -- and too coincidentally for me -- he runs into Lena and discovers she's become a prostitute involved in an unhealthy relationship with his driver Tully (Tobey Maguire), a soldier engaged in black market operations.

Lenas main goal is to get out of Germany. But shes under scrutiny by all sides because her husband, whos been declared dead, was involved in rocket weaponry research. Jake soon finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation while trying to help the enigmatic Lena. As he goes deeper into this mystery, he discovers a situation made worse by corrupt officials and their collaborators.

Using only filmmaking technology available in the 1940s, Soderbergh succeeds in creating almost the exact look of movies made back then. In keeping with film noir style, The Good German evokes a dark and pessimistic mood from beginning to end, helped considerably by Thomas Newmans somber musical score. Clooney and Blanchett, of course, are easy on the eyes whether photographed in black-and-white or in living color, so theres no worry in that department.

With lighting emphasizing her lovely high cheekbones, Blanchett, one of the best actresses working today, channels Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo for her portrayal of a fear-driven woman with terrible secrets she dare not reveal to the man she loves. The eternally handsome Clooney endows Jake with an appropriate combination of confusion and concern about his former mistress, but I never felt any chemistry between these two main characters.

A major problem for The Good German relates to casting Tobey Maguire in the role of Tully, an obnoxious and violent young man. Weve come to admire Maguire as Spider-Man, so its difficult accepting him as such an unsympathetic person. This film also leaves some glaring loose ends, particularly about Lenas husband (Christian Oliver), the true nature of his work and Lenas feelings about him.

But, hey, well always have Casablanca, right? Ironically, The Good Germans closing scene, which mimics Rick and Ilsas famous airport parting, made me wish I'd been watching Bogart and Bergman play it again for the umpteenth time instead.    

(Released by Warner Bros. Pictures and rated R for language, violence and some sexual content.)

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