Business is booming for George Clooney right now. The guy was
impossible to avoid in 2009, with three films out in a two-month period,
one of which got him a Best Actor nod at the Oscars. But what’s
interesting to note is that Up in the Air, The Fantastic Mr.
Fox and The Men Who Stare at Goats all made use of Clooney’s
natural charm to create characters who were light and comedic. A year
later, we have The American, which makes use of his charisma in a
very different way.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone remotely familiar with The
American, but Clooney is this movie. He’s surrounded by a cast of
unknowns, all of whom turn in superb performances, but Clooney’s turn is
the film’s centerpiece and its a very heavy burden indeed. The
screenplay is surprisingly scarce on dialogue and the titular American
is naturally a very stoic character. This means that we have to learn
about him entirely through his actions and what he’s thinking. Clooney
does this with astonishing results, letting us see the gears turning
behind his eyes even as he barely emotes. Brilliant work.
I only have one real problem with this movie, though it’s a problem
that permeates the entirety of its running time: We never learn
anything. Is our lead character named Jack, Edward, or none of the
above? Is he working for the CIA, NSA, INTERPOL, MI6, Black Ops or some
criminal organization? What was he doing before he went to Italy? Who’s
trying to kill him and why? He’s making a gun for some woman, but who is
she and who is she working for? Who was she planning to kill?
The conflict is never defined beyond “Clooney is running from people
who want to kill him” and the stakes are never defined, aside from the
life of our main character. I can understand — even appreciate — a
storyline that leaves a few things open to interpretation, but give me
something to work with here!
Fortunately, the movie is very good at holding tension. This is
mostly due to its outstanding opening scene. After the movie opened with
Jack/Edward getting ambushed by two anonymous Swedish gunmen (who may
or may not be Swedish), I was constantly on edge and expecting something
similar to happen again. Additionally, the fate of our hero’s first
girlfriend left me anxious to find out what would happen to his next
love interest. Alas, the opening’s promise was mostly empty. Despite
some sequences that were deftly shot and edited, in addition to the
tense musical score, about 85% of the movie’s tension leads to false
I must be perfectly clear: The American is not a bad
movie. The score is solid, the visuals are gobsmackingly gorgeous
and every single acting performance — especially Clooney’s — is
golden. Unfortunately, the opaque nature of the story leaves me
completely frustrated. Maybe I’m missing the point here, but I have a
very hard time recommending a movie that refuses to tell us what
conflict we’re watching or why any of it matters. Fans of Clooney will
see this one (if they haven’t already) and I certainly wouldn’t blame
them for it. Anyone else can take it or leave it.