George Clooney is so grim in “The American” he could play both Brothers Grimm and there’d still be enough grim left over for a third sibling.
Not that there’s anything wrong with grim. It’s just that, looking over his career, moviegoers prefer happy, wisecracking George (think “Ocean’s Eleven” and its sequels and “Up in the Air”) to grim George (“The Good German,” the terrific “Michael Clayton.”)
And he hasn’t been this dour since “Solaris,” Stephen Soderbergh’s tedious 2002 remake of the Russian sci-fi classic where he’s stuck on some sort of space station and mopes about forlornly for hours.
What both “Solaris” and “The American” share is a European sensibility. In telling the story of a disillusioned professional assassin (Clooney) who holes up in a small Italian town and begins to consider whether he has any shot at redemption, the movie is as spare and precisely machined as the metal gun parts his titular Yank so carefully fashions.
For Americans of a certain age — say, incipient geezers — raised on European art-house movies, there have always been two distinct sensibilities on display in these films: fun and grim. Rarely do the two meet.
The fun ones are the romps, featuring lots of food scenes, sex scenes and either salt-of-the-earth peasants or sophisticated urbanites. Think “Divorce Italian Style” or pretty much any film by Federico Fellini. Yes, sometimes Fellini touched on darker subjects, and there’s certainly plenty of pathos in his work, but one comes out of the theater feeling exuberant and confident that life will go on.
The flip side (and let’s stick with Italian cinema since “The American” is set wholly, other than an opening sequence, in Italy) are the classics of Neorealism (notably “The Bicycle Thief”) with their downtrodden working class protagonists and, later, the bored-with-it-all ennui and antics of the idle rich (watch, if you can, “L’Avventura”). You come out wondering only whether to cut your right wrist or your left one.
What’s amusing about “The American” is that it comes so quickly on the heels of “Eat Pray Love,” in which Italy was depicted as one, big heaping bowl of delicious, sauce-covered pasta and long afternoons and evenings whiled away in cafes indulging in good conversation and wine.
Clooney spends of time alone in cafes in “The American.” The one time he goes out to a proper meal in a nice restaurant, his date is a prostitute — and, yes, she appears to have a heart of gold –that he is falling in love with. (What, there were no nice waitresses, librarians or nuclear scientists in town he could date?) And then we only see the wine they order and drink (a Montepulchiano D’Abruzzo); there’s never that glorious, juicy close-up on the food they’re actually eating, which is half the reason to go to a film set in Italy.
I’m guessing that director Anton Corbin (“Control”) and Clooney, who served as a producer, have made exactly the film they wanted to make. And it’s not a bad one. It’s deliberate in every sense, from the careful, stark composition of its shots to the repeated use of butterfly imagery — including a tattoo of one on Clooney’s back. Butterflies mean rebirth. Get it?
The problem is that we’re kept at an emotional remove. We never learn enough about Clooney’s assassin — where he comes from, how he got into this line of work, or even what his real name is — to have much of a vested interest in what’s going to happen to him. For my money, I respected the film and even liked it, but it’s not easy to love.
If you’re feeling somber and looking for some intellectual engagement, it will ring your bells. But mostly it’s just too much “The European” for homegrown appetites.