Friday, September 10, 2010

The American is neither as good nor as bad as you've heard

On the one hand, there's Roger Ebert, who raves.

And then, on the other hand, there are members of the general public who rant.

Both reactions came  after seeing The American, George Clooney's latest film. Roger 4-starred it, but the general public forsook it, giving it a Cinemascore grade of D-. That's quite bad, considering the usually generous Cinemascore crowd rarely grades below a C.

Maybe it's the Libra in me, but I'm all about balancing the scales. As I so often do in disputes like this, I come down squarely in the middle. I LIKED The American, but I did not love it. I could understand why most audiences rejected it. The American is not for all tastes

If you harbor any resistance toward movies that are character studies -if you've never heard of director Michaelangelo Antonioni, whom Clooney's director Anton Corbijn tries to emulate - if your idea of a great action movie is anything with Stallone -  do  NOT see The American. You won't like it. You will find it about as exciting as watching a glacier melt. And the film movies at about the same speed.

But does that mean that if you like arthouse movies, and you know who Antonioni is, you will love The American? Not necessarily. I like arthouse movies and I know who Antonioni is, even though I've only ever seen Blow Up.  But I did not love The American. I thought the story of a weapons manufactuerer on the run was beautifully shot, with reliably solid work from George Clooney playing a lost soul.  Put in layman's terms, the theme of the movie is,  "It's no fun being a gunman." I found the idea of an assassin as a lonely soul was fascinating,

And yet, I found The American a little full of itself, a bit self-consciously pretentious. At heart, this is a tale best told as a short lasting an hour or less. But endless shots of Clooney's solitary  figure in a vast landscape overemphasize the themes of isolation and make the movie gaseous. There's just not much THERE there in the story. For me, that adds up to a good movie, not a great one. I'd give it a B.

So what do we learn from all this? Well, as many moviegoers have found out, trailers and TV spots can be deceptive. LA Times columnist Patrick Goldstein calls Focus Features disingenuous for knowing they had an arthouse movie on their hands but selling it as a thriller in the mold of Bourne or Bond.

But what else was Focus to do? If they sold the picture for what it really was, no one would have gone! People may come away hating the film, but it only cost about $30 million to make. It will turn a profit. Goldstein argues that Clooney may be hurt in the outcry over the film, but I doubt it. After all, this is a man who has made movies as uncommerical as Solaris and  The Good German. He's not going anywhere.

But you know who else could come out ahead in this? Critics.

That may sound preposterous because some people feel they got suckered by a movie those smarty-pants egghead critics liked. It just furthers the notion critics and Joe and Jane sixpack will never see eye to eye.

But you know what? The moral of the story is that even if you don't agree with critics, reading what we have to say will tell you what kind of film you're getting. We will tell you, better than the trailer, what the movie is like. You may not agree with us, but we'll be honest. Some people may say "If the critics like it, I'll hate it." Well, fine. So be it. Being used as a reverse divining rod is better than not being used at all.

But there's an even larger point to be made here. Movies come in all shapes and sizes, just like people do. Audiences may love Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, critics may hate it. Critics may like The American, even if audiences turn up their noses. And you know what? Both are OK. Neither means the death of American cinema. Popcorn flicks and arthouse fare will always be made, and as long as both are out there, then that's what matters.

The quote about movies I cite most often comes from Orson Welles, and it's especially apt here. He said, "To the movies, to good movies - to every possible kind."

He's right - even if you thought The American sucked.

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