Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 31, 2010)
Though many trailers misrepresent movies to attract viewers, few stretch this as far as the ads for 2010’s The American. Those promos made the film look like a taut thriller, while the end result landed in a place far, far away from that depicted genre. Oh, it boasts some of the requisite elements, but mostly it offers a subdued character piece.
One can forgive viewers who felt hoodwinked. I know I did, as I expected a George Clooney action flick and got an arty character piece instead.
That doesn’t mean that American can’t be good if one adjusts expectations. Is it good? Mileage varies, of course, but I think it’s a drowsy dud.
A skilled assassin named Jack (George Clooney) goes into seclusion while he awaits one final job. He takes up residency in a small Swiss town and gets to know Clara (Violante Placido), a local prostitute with whom he starts to fall in love. Jack ponders the nature of his life and career while he also attempts to avoid potential threats.
Perhaps my expectations of an action thriller would’ve been curtailed if I’d known in advance that Anton Corbijn directed it. Probably best-known due to his photography of U2 – he shot the cover to The Joshua Tree and many other noted images – Corbijn’s only prior big-screen directorial effort was 2007’s Control. That was a biopic for musician Ian Curtis, so given Corbijn’s history, he remained in familiar territory.
That made American a stretch, and Corbijn lacked the skill to make it a successful stretch. At its core, American provides a 70s-style European character drama. Clooney’s presence opened the door for its marketing to the multiplex masses, but that was completely the wrong audience for it. I’m sure this helped the bottom line; American earned $35 million versus the $100,000 or so it’d have made without Clooney.
I’d be curious to find out how many of those viewers felt satisfied with the film. I’d guess the number ranges from “a handful” to “exceedingly few”, though I could be wrong; a look at IMDB shows an average rating of 6.6 out of 10, and more than half rated it between 6 and 8, so most of its IMDB audience liked it well enough.
Personally, I can’t say I actively disliked it, but I didn’t find a whole lot to enjoy about it. With one exception, that is: the exceedingly lovely Placido, who spends much of her time onscreen in various stages of undress. Heck, she’s worth a “6” rating all on her own. (And the film doesn’t leave out the ladies: Clooney goes shirtless a few times and also bares his butt in one scene.)
Without the occasional stimulation provided by Placido, I’m not sure I would’ve stayed awake. My complaint stems less from the false advertising I described earlier and more from the simple lack of drama on display. While American wants to be a deep character study, instead it just feels like a plodding exercise in nothingness.
That’s because Jack starts as a mystery and ends as one. Though Clooney appears in virtually every scene, the film does exceptionally little to flesh out his character. No, I don’t expect it to provide cheap and easy backstory, but it’d be nice to get a better handle on his life and motivations. Beyond the cliché of the bad man who wants to end his sordid ways, the film doesn’t demonstrate any arc.
Indeed, American does tend to traffic in clichés. In addition to Jack, we get the hooker with a heart of gold and the priest who tries to restore the lead’s humanity. None of them offer anything more than basic personality sketches; if Jack can’t emerge as a full-fledged character with all that screen time, the others have no shot either.
At least Clooney gives it his best shot. He leaves his standard cocky charm on the shelf and lends a dark, haunted quality to Jack. To Clooney’s credit, he doesn’t overdo this. He easily could’ve tried so hard to make Jack the opposite of his standard persona that the character became a caricature. Clooney doesn’t have much to work with, but he does what he can.
Too much of American feels undercooked, unfortunately. It simply takes a long time to go anywhere, and it never provides a particularly involving journey. Yes, Jack does experience growth as a character, but that path doesn’t feel fresh or original, and the film’s inability to develop the personalities harms it.
This means we’re left with… not much. For instance, we find endless shots of Jack at work on the weapon he was hired to create. I understand these exist to illustrate the character’s insular, lonely existence, but they nearly exist in isolation; without much else to give the movie life, we’re left with tedium.
I will say that American plays better on second viewing, mostly because it means the viewer comes to it with appropriate expectations. Even with that understanding, though, it still lacks enough depth to make it involving. It’s not an awful movie, but it’s awfully slow.