"See that butterfly? You think it's Danaus plexippus, but it's not - it's Pieris rapae!"
"A butterfly?," my wife wondered aloud as we watched George Clooney's character, Jack, perform his daily calisthenics routine in his cozy flat tucked away in a small Italian village. She was referring to the tattoo on his upper back (although it would have made just as much sense on the small of his back, and been funnier), and while I also noticed the unexplained marking, I was busy trying to determine whether Jack traveled with a pull-up bar or if they are actually standard in century-old Italian dwellings.
Whatever we were focused on while watching Anton Corbijn's The American, it wasn't the plot - such as there is one. The potential for a simmering thriller exists (the film is based on Martin Booth's well-received 1990 novel, "A Very Private Gentleman"), but the on-screen translation is a cliché-ridden and ultimately inconsequential film. Much as it tries to transcend the genre, it still ends up a vanilla "One Last Job" movie where the bank robber/assassin/detective/soldier/criminal plods along as a tortured soul, haunted by a lost love, chased by inept enemies, unable to trust anyone and forced to accept his likely fate - to die either as a martyr or as a ghost. Generally these characters do a good deal of brooding and philosophizing to supporting characters about their life's path.
Problem is, Rowan Joffe's screenplay for The American calls for very little in the way of characters talking and very much in the way of George Clooney just looking depressed. He is the picture of melancholy, sipping espresso alone in cafes, nervously walking and driving with an eye over his shoulder and a hand on his gun, tossing and turning in bed, making safe, emotionless conversation with locals, rubbing his eyes in anguish, and so on. At some point I just had to wonder, "Was this the right guy for the job?".
Clooney's background is in comedy and fast-talking drama, and his unique talent (aside from cutting an impeccable figure in a suit) is his laid back charm, most recently seen in Up in the Air. He's not a brooder by nature, and his sorrowful acting here is obvious and unnatural, in no small part because he's alone on screen for much of the film (at some point Corbijn could have stepped in and directed some meaningful nonverbal acting). When rare interactions with other characters do arise he seems to wake up, but for the majority of the movie Clooney - and the audience - are on autopilot, waiting for some kind of drama to develop under the hazy Italian sun. There are beats of minor suspense here and there, but much of it is contrived (e.g., the silly night chase) and it never progresses to a fulfilling climax.
This wouldn't be a problem, of course, if there were more layers underneath the thin shell of tension. But there aren't - we know almost nothing about Jack outside of a few facial expressions and some cryptic conversations (too many of which are by phone; I began counting the number of words in each exchange and they never surpassed 20 in total). Indeed, he is "A Very Private Gentleman", and even the audience is never allowed into his mind (something done to better effect in a similar film, El Custodio).
To illustrate this lack of character development, consider how much more we can learn simply from the Publisher's Weekly description on the book's Amazon.com page: "...a rural village in southern Italy where he poses as "Signor Farfalla," a quiet artist who paints miniatures of butterflies and has traveled to the area to capture a unique native specimen." In the movie he is instead posing as an architectural photographer, but still obsessed with butterflies, which are symbolically shown throughout the film. How much more sense it would have made - and how much more it may have explained about who he really is - if Joffe had let Jack remain a butterfly artist! Ah, but that would have prevented the meaningless discussion about photography in the film and a throwaway scene where Jack uses a camera.
And for as little as we know about Jack as a professional - we know even less about him as a person. In the book, "the flashbacks into Clark's cold, brutal past are cleverly juxtaposed against his budding romance with young, naive Clara." In the movie there's one obvious flashback that doesn't adequately serve this purpose, and we know virtually nothing about Jack's past relationships with friends, family, or lovers. What are his regrets? His dreams? His fears?
Making things worse was that I never felt Corbijn effectively established the mood of the film. The landscapes and lighting were nice on the eyes (after all, Corbijn is a photographer), but the score distracted me when it was trying to scare me, and the editing didn't keep things moving along efficiently. The one moment which really did seem inspired was, curiously, an extremely long sex scene. It was entirely gratuitous but it was one of the few spots in which you felt Corbijn was actually trying to make some kind of artistic statement, and you couldn't help but be taken in by it, if only because it was eternal.
I've harped on why the mood and character development are so important because so much of The American is spent simply observing Jack and trying to interpret his thoughts and motives. Others might enjoy this challenge, but I found it frustrating and, even worse, occasionally boring. If I'm counting the number of words in conversations, or if I'm wondering how Jack installed the pull-up bar, or why his hands are delicate and silky smooth instead of stained and calloused (despite Father Benedetto's claim of the opposite), or how on earth Clara arrived at the forest clearing at the end of the film, well then I'm not engaged in the right way.
I really wanted to like The American, wanted to appreciate it for it was (a European-style suspense thriller - more thoughts on that) and what it wasn't (a sequel, a remake, etc.). It had intrigue and mystery, but a little too much of both, and surrounding the wrong things.