The American: A Car Commercial for Grown-Ups

12/01/2010 8:46 AM |

If you squint...its Cary Grant!
  • If you squint…it’s Cary Grant!

As the year in film draws to a close, Henry Stewart is scrambling to catch up with some of the movies he missed, so he can tell you whether to bump them up in your queue or feel guilt-free for deleting them. Today, he discusses Anton Corbijn’s The American.

Like Michael Clayton, The American is another one of those George Clooney movies for grown-ups, in which character, backstory and plot aren’t simply handed out—you have to work for them. Just not very hard. Clooney, of course, plays a disaffected, world-weary expatriate; sad, suave and gravelly voiced, he’s pitched somewhere between anti-hero and hero. (Clooney used to be his generation’s Cary Grant. Now he’s going for its Bogart.) He reads books about butterflies in his spare time, and the strangers he meets during his exile in an Italian backwater take to calling him Mr. Butterfly. Is he a hit man? An arms dealer? A super spy? Or just a gracefully aged hunk?

This slick, stylish Eurothriller moves as deliberately as Clooney’s (justifiably) paranoid protagonist. It’s sleek, sophisticated (read: cynical), superficially sexy and not much smarter than the James Bond films and car commercials whose aesthetic it approaches. (Because he’s in Italy, Clooney’s new friends are a priest and a prostitute.) But The American does, almost, emerge as an allegory about the knotty world of international intelligence, in which the gunmen and -women trying to kill each other all work for the same guy. The last reel, though, is kind of too late to start being clever.