Monday, September 27, 2010

The Social Network

Hungry for connections he can’t make in real life, Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) lights up when he thinks he’s invented the solution. The Facebook, he says, gives students a way of “taking the entire social experience of college and putting it online.”

But relationships, as most of us know, are too complex to fit neatly into a digital template. Facebook (Zuckerberg later dropped the “The”) doesn’t come close to duplicating the college experience – but The Social Network does. It brings to life the social insecurity, intellectual arrogance, and competitive drive that fuels achievement at a place like Harvard. And it hypothesizes (though the story is based in truth, most of the dialogue and some characters and situations were invented by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin or Ben Mezrich, whose book the screenplay was loosely based on) that that potent combination was behind the creation of Facebook and its tumultuous first year of growth.

For a film about ideas, The Social Network is bracingly kinetic. Some of that credit goes to the screenplay, which tells a story of astonishing success, monumentally hurt feelings, and (maybe) cold-hearted betrayal, not to mention a high-stakes fight over the theoretical riches generated by Facebook stock. (Much of the company’s early history is told in the form of depositions, as Zuckerberg faces former business partners in two separate lawsuits.)

There are no villains in this evenhanded tale, whose multiple narrators are all somewhat unreliable. Zuckerberg’s spurned friend and Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who sues him after getting cut out of the action in a (typically for Zuckerberg) thoughtless manner, comes off well as a person but not so well as a businessman. The Winklevoss twins, a pair of Aryan gods (both played by Armie Hammer, with help from a body double and a method devised for Fincher’s Benjamin Button in which one actor’s head is electronically grafted onto another’s neck in post-production), are gently spoofed for their patrician sense of entitlement at the same time that they’re shown as having a probably legitimate gripe. (They’re accusing Zuckerman of having stolen the idea for Facebook from them after they hired him to develop a Harvard dating site.)

Or is Zuckerberg right when he sneers at their claim, saying Facebook was just a variation on a theme that was already live in the form of MySpace and Friendster? After all, isn’t it true that what made it a success was not the idea but the execution?

Typically, The Social Network raises that question, lets its characters argue both sides of the argument, and then moves on, letting you decide what to think.

Sorkin and director David Fincher are also evenhanded in their treatment of Zuckerberg, who is often described as arrogant or abrasive, painting him as someone who likely has Asperger’s syndrome. Their Zuckerberg is an intellectual snob, but he’s also a victim of his own limitations, his stiff body language, abrupt way of speaking and impassive face alienating people he wants to befriend. Fincher shows us what’s under that stony mask, pushing his camera into Eisenberg’s face as the actor employs a beautifully calibrated range of tics and tells to telegraph the emotions beneath that apparently still surface.

Fast cuts between action and deposition or between faces in charged exchanges also keep up the momentum, as do the fast talk and artfully overlapping dialogue that cram 160-plus pages -- a third as much as usual -- into two hours. In a Q&A after a New York Film Festival press screening last week, Fincher explained “Sorkinese” as characters thinking out loud. Rather than present you with a neatly constructed wall of bricks, he says, Sorkin’s character bring you “a ton of bricks, dumping it on the audience’s lap.”

I didn’t like Sorkin’s writing in The West Wing – all those angelically backlit people spewing nearly identical chatter sounded pre-programmed and often smug – but Fincher and his excellent cast make every thought sound as if it were being formed in real time, often along with two or three others. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s electronic score also feels just right, adding to the sense of urgency and alienation without calling undue attention to itself.

Fincher has been calling his film “the Citizen Kane of John Hughes movies,” but The Social Network has a lot more snap, crackle and pop than that stately tale. I’d say it’s more like a 21st century version of What makes Sammy Run?

Written for TimeOFF

New York Film Festival 2010: My Joy

And the prize for most ironic title at the New York Film Festival goes to … My Joy, a wrist-slittingly morose Ukraine/German/Dutch coproduction set in Russia. An art-house variation on the post-apocalyptic road movies that are so popular these days (The Road, The Book of Eli, Children of Men), this relentlessly pessimistic parable gave me a new appreciation for its mainstream cousins' visual flair and narrative clarity.

The city life Georgy (Viktor Nemets) leaves in order to deliver a truckload of flour to the boonies looks pretty bleak, but it's a paradise compared to the predatory world he blunders into, where the scars inflicted by WWII are still raw and there's barely a hint of kindness or love to be found. Georgy literally loses his way, then loses his innocence and all sense of hope as he is abused, misused, and left for dead by his glassy-eyed countrymen. Deliberately paced and full of weighty silences, the film lurches from scene to scene with the abrupt illogic of a nightmare. Dogs howl, goats bleat, sadistic traffic cops bludgeon citizens pulled over at random, and then it all repeats until we watch him plod from a pool of light into the murk of a deserted nighttime street, his figure eventually disappearing into darkness.

In one of those coincidences that hit you when you watch a string of movies at a film festival, it's the same device that closes Of Gods and Men, whose doomed monks disappear into the white of a snowy hillside—and it feels equally heavyhanded in both films. By the time Georgy fades to black, I felt as hollowed out and stonyhearted as he looks.

Written for The House Next Door

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Emails With my Editor: George Clooney

When I think of a blog, I think of someone writing about what he or she is thinking/feeling/doing, in a conversational style that invites comments. In my favorite blogs the line between reader and writer is blurred, with reader comments enriching the original post by building on or arguing with it.

I started Girls Can Play mainly because I wanted someplace to park the reviews and interviews I do for the publications I write for, but I also hoped the blog format would invite readers to leave their own thoughts. A few of you have commented (and earned my eternal gratitude), but on the whole, this has remained a parking lot for my opinions.

I’d like to turn this parking lot into a living room, a place where there’s always an interesting conversation going on. (Actually, I guess what I have in mind is a salon, but that’s taken.) I know you have it in you; I just don’t know quite how to bring it out. So I’m trying something new.

Anthony Stoeckert, my editor at TimeOFF, also loves movies and writes about them when he can for his own blog. He’s a smart guy and a good writer with a conversational, welcoming writing style, so I've always enjoyed "talking" movies with him via email (we've never met – or even talked on the phone). We thought some of our exchanges might work as blog posts, starting with this one.

This is a lightly edited conversation (we pruned it back some after going off on too many tangents) that started with some speculation about The American. That part contains some spoilers, so skip to Anthony’s second comment if you plan to see The American and haven’t yet.

I’d love to hear what you think: about Clooney, about his movies, about why you do or don't like leaving comments on blogs? About something one of us said? And what about the idea of running more chats like this between me and Anthony. Would you like to see more or not?

ANTHONY: I saw The American yesterday and loved it. I had a discussion with my wife's uncle, he didn't like it much, and I noticed the New Yorker reviewer didn't care for it, so it's nice to see I'm not alone.

I have a question: When the woman tries to shoot Clooney at the end, did her gun backfire or did Pavel shoot her? I thought the gun backfired (and that perhaps Jack rigged it that way, knowing he was Pavel’s target). But my wife's uncle thought Pavel shot her. I had no doubts that the gun backfired, but now I'm wondering, what was Pavel doing there if he didn't plan on killing both of them?

ELISE: I was wondering the same thing – or a variation on it.

I have to say, I just assumed that Pavel shot her. But now that you mention it, Jack did hesitate before delivering the gun -- he took it out of its case, remember? I wondered what that was about, though I didn't think about it for long. Now you have me wondering again. The part of her face that was destroyed was the eye over the eyepiece, which might jibe with a backfire -- as if I really know what a backfire injury would look like. I like your theory, though.

Since I assume Pavel did it, I was trying to figure out why Pavel he shot her – or rather, why he shot her before she shot Jack. You would think, if he were wanted her and Jack dead, that he would just wait until she shot Jack and then shoot her, grab the gun, and go.

The theory I came up with was that Pavel had always intended to kill both her and Jack – and probably the woman who came out to test the gun with the flower target, too – so there would be no one left who could trace this very expensive hand-made gun to him. I mean, why spend thousands of dollars (what they paid Jack plus his living expenses plus the two women’s time and travel expenses) for something as easy to come by as a gun, unless it’s crucial that it be totally untraceable? But the shooter messed up Pavel's plan by waiting for such a public occasion to target Jack. Pavel didn't want to risk people rushing up after hearing her shot and before he could get away -- they might see him fleeing. So he took her out before she could shoot, knowing that Jack would follow and he could get him then. That could be totally off base, of course, but I need to come up with something that might make sense of that scene.

I actually found it interesting that I had to mull it over that way. It shows how much faith the filmmakers had earned -- I felt sure they had a good reason for what happened, though they didn't spell it out any more than they did any of the who-what-why of the stalking of Jack that was going on throughout the movie.

P.S. I'm glad you liked it too. I saw it with my husband, who didn't like it at all. He and I have very similar taste in movies, but we really disagreed on this one. He thought it was just a string of clichés -- the whore with a heart of gold, the hero who dies just as he's finally about to break free, etc. But I think the truism that what matters is not what story a movie tells but how it tells it is particularly true of genre movies, and I thought this one portrayed those familiar elements creatively enough to make them feel fresh.

ANTHONY: I'm finding myself loving George Clooney movies lately. I didn't think much of things like Good Night, and Good Luck and Michael Clayton. And at the risk of sounding dopey, I just didn't understand a minute of Syriana.

Now with Burn After Reading, Up in the Air and The American (not to mention The Fantastic Mr. Fox), I think he's on a roll. He's a rare movie star who just demands my attention, I can't take my eyes off him (OK, maybe my eyes swayed during some of the scenes with Violante Placido).

Speaking of which, this is also the first movie I've seen in a while that is genuinely sexy. The main characters are ridiculously attractive — the most attractive assassins ever, and the most beautiful prostitute in history — but all of the aesthetics of the movie are beautiful.

ELISE: I like George Clooney a lot too. Was just watching him on a Roseanne rerun last night and thinking how frustrating it must have been for him to be cast as a callow pretty boy.

His career is a lot like Warren Beatty's, in the way they've both transcended their looks (while using them in a smart way) and taken control of their careers early on by becoming producers and directors. They've both done stuff that reflected their politics, too. And they're both very smart, savvy guys who have made some really good movies. I think Clooney generally chooses his roles well and makes interesting movies as a director -- though I hated Leatherheads.

I liked Good Night, and Good Luck when I saw it, since I was hungry for a liberal parable at the time, but I don't have any desire to see it again. Michael Clayton holds up better in my memory -- I'd happily see that again. I remember it as an smartly done, beautifully shot genre film -- not unlike The American in that sense, and with Clooney playing a similarly trapped/frustrated character. What did you not like about it?

ANTHONY: What I didn't like about Good Night, and Good Luck was that it just seemed to re-enact events, especially Murrow's broadcasts. I'm no expert on Murrow, but I didn't learn anything new about him, or McCarthyism, because of the movie. Gene Siskel had a test for movies based on real-life events: Is it more insightful or interesting than a documentary about the topic would be? I'd say Good Night, and Good Luck failed that test. It did, however, lead to one of my all-time favorite Oscar jokes, when Jon Stewart said that, coincidentally, "Good Night, and Good Luck" are also the words uses Clooney to end all his dates.

I should see Michael Clayton again, I don't remember it enough to be fair about it. But I recall thinking it was a pretty standard story, not as layered or as much of a statement about the times we're living in as a lot of reviews led me to believe it would be.

About The American: A lot of people just hate it. Someone left a biting comment on your review, and's review of it was hateful, as were all of the comments left under it. I hate to sound all smart and superior - and as with almost every movie, I'm sure there's an argument to make against it - but I wonder if people just aren't patient enough these days to watch a deliberate, quiet character study. I've read a few jibes at the scenes where Clooney builds the gun, I loved those scenes: I liked watching the character's competence, and the way he used those elements to build the gun.

ELISE: Interesting point about fiction films needing to be better than documentaries about the same subject. That makes me think about Milk, since I liked The Times of Harvey Milk, a documentary about him, much better than the fiction film. In my review for you guys, I said it takes a great fictionalized film to beat a good doc if you’re telling a real person’s life story, since the impact of seeing the actual person gives the documentary an edge. Maybe a documentary that covered the same ground as Good Night, and Good Luck would have been better, but I liked what Clooney was doing with the look and the mood of it enough to think it worked as fiction. I also liked how Clooney used actual footage of McCarthy rather than having an actor impersonate him -- which was blending documentary with fictionalized reenactment, come to think of it. And what I liked best about the film was the choice Clooney made to focus on what happened behind the scenes -- how hard it was to get that interview on the air and how close it came to being squelched. Like you, I didn’t learn anything new about what McCarthy was doing or how Murrow showed him up in that interview, but I saw that as just the background for the real story, which was how journalists can beat back demagogues and change the political landscape if they do their job right and stick to their guns.

But ironically, the message that made me like that movie so much is exactly what makes me not so interested in seeing it again. I was really frustrated at the time with how our media had amplified the lies the Bush Administration was putting out about WMDs to justify going into Iraq, so I felt this urgent need for a reminder about the role reporters are supposed to play in a democracy. I still feel that need, but not so urgently at the moment.

That's probably why message movies usually have a short shelf life: Something that seems important when it comes out can quickly feel irrelevant or dated or overly familiar. I think Good Night, and Good Luck will hold up a lot better than, say, Gentleman's Agreement, though. I guess the people who made that one thought audiences needed to be reminded that Jews are people too, in the wake of the Holocaust, and maybe they were right. But geez, could that screenplay have been any more painfully obvious and sanctimonious? Clooney’s movies -- even the ones he just acts in -- are almost always intelligently made, even when they’re just okay.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

New York Film Festival 2010: Poetry

Mija (Yun Jung-hee) is the antithesis of the title character in Mother, another gripping character study by a South Korean writer-director. Where the mother in Mother insisted that her son was being framed for the murder of a young woman, doggedly tracking down leads until she unearthed the truth, Mija knows as soon as she hears it that Wook (Lee David), the impassive grandson she's raising, was partly responsible for the suicide of a girl in his high school class. For Mija, the question is not how to prove Wook's innocence, but how to do something much harder: She must figure out what justice looks like in a case like this and make sure it is done, without betraying her beloved grandson.

Mija learns the truth from the fathers of the other boys, who see it as an unfortunate but easily solved problem: They just need to hush up the school officials and the press and pay off the girl's mother. Mija can't bear to listen to their talk; she keeps drifting out of the room and they barely register her absence, patronizing her as she has no doubt been patronized her whole life. (The girlishly lovely Mija's default mode is smiles and self-deprecating chitchat, and the other characters keep commenting on her beauty and her ultra-feminine clothes.)

But writer-director Lee Chang-dong tunes us so precisely into Mija's wavelength that her searching silences speak much louder than the men's false, self-justifying words. Mija knows they owe the girl and her family more than just cash, and she knows she how important it is for the boys to acknowledge and atone for their crime.

Poetry nudges us a bit too hard every now and then, mostly when a kindly poetry teacher lectures his class about learning to truly see. Those unnecessarily expository moments stick out like a fly in a bowl of bisque, but they're too rare and too minor to ruin this elegantly told morality tale, whose screenplay won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes. Making Mija's thoughts and feelings clear without ever spelling them out, Lee follows several strands of resolutely everyday encounters to a deeply moving conclusion (while deciding what to do about the crime, Mija tends to a stroke victim, learns that she has early-stage Alzheimer's, and joins that talky teacher's poetry class).

Cinematographer Kim Hyung-seok's compositions pack in as much information as the screenplay, often framing the most important part of a shot in the background. Time and again, we watch Mija as she watches somebody else. The people she looks at generally overlook or ignore her, but she never misses a trick.

Written for The House Next Door

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Town

There’s something anachronistic about Ben Affleck. As an actor he exudes old-fashioned reserve, maneuvering his big body so carefully he seems almost arthritic. (No wonder he was cast as George Reeves, the original TV Superman, in Hollywoodland.) And as a writer/director, he has more in common with Clint Eastwood than with anyone in his own generation, making the kind of irony-free, moralistic melodramas that dominated Hollywood in the ‘50s. And so, while Casey Affleck is testing our limits this year, pushing audiences outside their comfort zones both as an actor (The Killer Inside Me) and a director (I’m Still Here), his big brother is coloring well within the lines.

Like the other two movies Ben Affleck has cowritten and/or directed, The Town is set in Boston. Also like the others, it explores the gulf between the city’s abundant yuppies and its vast and varied working class – or tries to. Our Town is the second movie Affleck has directed, and while it’s not quite as sentimental as Good Will Hunting (which he cowrote but didn’t direct), it’s not nearly as gritty as his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. Boston, which is supposed to be one of The Town’s main characters, just feels like a series of carefully dressed sets here, not like the hot-blooded, treacherous, yet compelling organism that was Gone Baby Gone’s Dorchester.

This might not have been quite such a Nilla wafer of a movie if Affleck hadn’t played Doug MacRay, the leader of a four-man team of bank robbers in the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown. Affleck is a likeable actor – I always find myself rooting for him, even when he’s in something preposterous (as he usually is.) But he doesn’t generate enough heat to make a convincing criminal mastermind – not even one with a heart of gold and a sad back story.

We learn some of that story when Doug visits his dad (Chris Cooper), who’s serving life for armed robbery. The old man is a master thief, all right: He steals the scene right out from under his son. But mostly, we find out about Doug’s background when he starts confiding in Claire (a sadly underused Rebecca Hall), the manager of a bank he and his boys just robbed. Like so many couples, Doug and Claire met on the job. Claire just doesn’t happen to know it, since she was blindfolded at the time. You see, Doug’s best friend and partner in crime, Jim (Jeremy Renner, as focused as a rattlesnake), took her hostage after robbing her bank.

I wondered why he took a hostage, other than to provide a way for the two to meet cute, since the gang wasn’t being followed and they never took one after any of their other robberies, but little things like that would have rolled off my back if the big stuff had worked. What really bothered me was being unable to buy the relationship between Doug and Claire. Would he really have risked dating her, especially after he learned that she’d seen one of Jim’s tattoos and could therefore presumably lead the FBI to him? And would she really have forgiven Doug so quickly and completely after learning that he was one of her kidnappers?

The friendship between Doug and Jim felt pretty unlikely, too. I could believe that the two had been close when they were kids, but it was hard to see what they had in common now, since Doug is a marshmallow and Jim is a sociopath who thinks nothing of shooting someone or beating him senseless.

To deflect attention from this undercooked stew, Affleck throws in a heist every hour or so. The costumes are inventive: the robbers wear skull masks and capes the first time; dress as nuns the second, and switch from police uniforms to EMT outfits the third time around. The robberies are nicely shot, too (aside from a few of those annoying jerky close-ups), so they’re energetic and reasonably fun to watch.

The Town heightens the sympathy all heist movies create in us for the thieves, making the FBI agent (a rigid John Hamm) stalking the group so coldhearted that we love it when Doug outsmarts him. Affleck is at his best here, combining his love of blue-collar Boston with our knee-jerk support for the underdog. The ruts are worn awfully deep in the road he's traveling here, but it still takes you where he wants to go.

Written for TimeOFF

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Temptation of St. Tony

Playing at times like a parody of an existential art-house film, The Temptation of St. Tony—the first Estonian film to crack the Sundance barrier—is sometimes brilliant, sometimes incomprehensible, and ultimately disappointing.

We first see Tony (Taavi Eelmaa), a mid-level factory manager, in a scene out of Fellini with a little Bergman mixed in. Dressed in white and carrying a big cross, he leads a line of black-clad mourners, shot from below against a bleak sky, as they carry a coffin to a graveyard. Even here, there's something intriguingly off-kilter: A car crashes in the background, apparently killing the driver, but the mourners march on, oblivious. Things soon get curiouser and curiouser as everything in Tony's life crumbles around him, leaving him marooned in a world full of random and rapacious evil.

The film unfolds like a nightmare, a Tarkovsky-esque series of numbered chapters studded with violence, carefully choreographed debauchery (you can tell it's European because the frontal nudity is mostly male), and grotesque surrealism. There's no narrative thread to connect the incidents—just Tony's constant presence and a few other recurring characters and symbols, including a black dog, severed hands, a lumbering brute who looks like Ed Wood favorite Tor Johnson, and a beautiful and doomed young woman with Louise Brooks bangs. Shot mostly in medium to long shots and long takes-sometimes too long-the vivid images and beautiful black-and-white cinematography pull you in. So do the little shards of black humor (Tony gives a homeless man a bottle of wine and the man pours it out, adding the empty bottle to his collection). Writer/director Veiko Õunpuu gets in some good digs at the capitalism that is apparently infecting even Estonia these days, too, like when Tony's boss makes him fire all the factory's employees to push his company's profit margin from 19-point-something percent to a nice round 20. And if the horrendous things people do to one another don't make you wish you could join the marathon drunks they keep embarking on, the sad Estonian songs they sing and the mournful American ballads that murmur in the background (I recognized "Motherless Child," Townes Van Zandt, and some bleak bluegrass) surely will.

But frequent homages to other films and filmmakers (mainly Tarkovsky, but also Buñuel, Cabaret, and even a little Texas Chain Saw Massacre) just recall how much better those other movies worked. There's not much soul in this soul-searching journey, whose what's-it-all-about? dialogue is strictly paint-by-numbers ("Why does man exist?" "What is a man's life worth these days? It's not worth shit"). Worse yet, there isn't a hint of grace. In Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky subjects us to a world of pain so we can understand Rublev's thirst for transcendence. In The Temptation of St. Tony, the blankest slate since Etch a Sketch witnesses acts of cruelty only to wind up joining the bad guys, in an ending that fails to move. A story like this should feel like a tragedy. Or a comedy. Or something.

Written for The L magazine

Monday, September 13, 2010

The American

A beautifully shot mood piece, The American is a tasty bowlful of high-class eye candy. I wasn’t surprised to read that director Anton Corbijn (whose first feature, the rock biopic Control, was a very good film of a very different sort) got into movies through photography: This is clearly the work of someone who thinks a lot about where to put the camera and why.

It opens in a cabin by a frozen Swedish lake in winter, where Jack/Edward (George Clooney) is holed up with a lover. We see them only for a couple of minutes and they barely exchange a word, but a wide shot of the two in profile as they take a walk establishes their intimacy. Having seen them almost merge into a single figure, their strides perfectly matched, we feel the weight of Jack/Edward’s loss when she goes down a moment later, the victim of an ambush intended for him.

That kind of thing happens to Jack/Edward wherever he goes, though it takes him a while to figure out who’s trying to kill him and why. It took me almost as long, but I accepted it as easily as he does, since I’ve seen this story so many times before. Like one of Sergio Leone’s taciturn heroes, Clooney’s man with many names lives and dies by the gun, and that means never knowing where the next bullet may come from.

I thought of Leone because most of the movie takes place in a lovely medieval town in Italy, where Jack/Edward is sent by Pavel, the man who is paying him to build a high-powered and untraceable rifle for some high-level assassination. If that hadn’t been enough, I would have been noodged into it when Leone was reverently name-checked in a bar where Once Upon a Time in the West was playing. But Leone is hardly the only director to have made movies about the loneliness of the long-distance gunslinger, a genre that goes back at least to 1953’s Shane.

The American strips that genre down to its skivvies and makes it look hot. As cinematography Martin Ruhe’s camera snakes through the gorgeous scenery, it often switches to aerial shots, establishing the high-walled streets of the town and the mountainous, switchback-ridden roads leading up to it as an elegant trap in which Jack/Edward is simultaneously exposed and hemmed in. The soundtrack is nicely done too, short on music and long on crisp sound effects like the clatter of running feet on cobblestones or the backfire of a scooter going off like a shot and making Jack/Edward jump.

The camera never leaves our antihero as he almost wordlessly goes about his business, turning the tables on yet another would-be killer, getting together with the town’s gently intrusive priest, or falling for Clara (Violante Placido), a sweet-faced hooker. We also watch as he fixes machines, assembles the gun and ammo, sits moodily in cafes, and does push-ups and pull-ups, his body moving in and out of the frame as steadily as a piston in one of his machines. The streets he travels and the bars and cafes he frequents are generally eerily empty, helping to establish him as the ultimate lonely planet guide.

Not that there aren’t plenty of women in his life. Besides Clara, there are the shooters Pavel sends to test-drive and pick up the gun, both of whom look like they stopped off enroute to a runway in Milan.

In addition to generous helpings of shapely naked bodies and beautiful scenery, there are some great faces to look at. The camera loves Johan Leysen, whose cobalt blue eyes and glacially crevassed face make Pavel look suitably icy. Clooney’s own dark-eyed mug has grown more interesting with age, and he makes good use of his creases and gray hair, looking almost haggard at first as he stills his features into a wary mask and dulls the sparkle in his eyes. Then Jack/Edward emerges from his emotional deep freeze and Clooney’s face thaws out, winding up wracked with grief and frustration in his final closeup.

There’s a fine line between well done genre and cliché, and The American crosses it once or twice, with the heavyhanded references to the butterflies Jack/Edward identifies with (one he admires is part of an endangered species, noodge noodge) and the luminous Clara, a whore with a heart of gold and a nimbus of angelic backlighting. But for the most part, this intelligently constructed movie feels as sleek and surefooted as its hero.