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The American

The American

Secret agents can get killed all sorts of ways: they can be cut in half by lasers, dropped by angry cat-stroking bosses into shark tanks, or struck by exploding pens. But George Clooney has proven that they can also be killed by boredom, in what must be the single most stultifyingly boring non-thriller espionage drama ever produced. Clooney is the nameless agent who evades death by cultivating a sense of constant paranoia. Far from being a glamorous life, being an assassin or agent (or whatever he is) is best described as long stretches of loneliness and dullness punctuated by brief moments of danger.

The movie poster for The American seems to indicate that audiences should expect a cerebral thriller, maybe a Frenchy version of The Bourne Identity franchise. There's Clooney, running or some such, right on the poster. But really, he's just walking at a brisk pace, which after viewing the film still feels like the promoters are lying through their teeth. Most of the time his character sits sullenly in a cafe in Italy, sipping a cappucino -- but that doesn't make for much of a movie poster.

The film starts with Clooney's spy avoiding an assassination attempt and then fleeing to Italy where he gets help from an old contact. This former associate provides him with a car, a cell phone and a place to stay. Clooney's character drives to the Italian castel the contact named, gets out of his car, and then surveys the locals, who take almost no notice of him. His protective paranoia super senses tingling, Clooney's agent drives off to another castel, tossing the donated cell phone out the car window. The castel (a sort of walled city in the Italian countryside, with criss-crossing streets that make for some vaguely exciting chases later in the film) is led by a priest who befriends 'The American' and begins to realize that he is 'a sinner'.

And so it goes, with 'The American' using his paranoia to thwart any sort of action from occurring. Audiences are never told who Clooney's character is, how he became a spy, or assassin, or whatever he is supposed to be. The motive behind the assassination attempts aren't addressed, either. The American is a film about how boring, meaningless and lonely the life of an assassin can be. This makes for a boring movie, unfortunately. There are some exciting moments, sure, but because Clooney's delivery is so nuanced as to be non-existent, audiences aren't likely to care about the danger his character faces.

What passes for the film's single car chase includes a very European-y car, with Clooney giving chase by commandeering a Vespa scooter. Watching two raindrops 'race' down a window pane would be just as thrilling. At times I wanted to yell out into the theater the 'bah-dah-BAH-DA!" theme from James Bond. Other times when Clooney was in yet another cafe I wanted to shout out, "Exotic locations!"

The American does manage to give espionage the serious treatment audiences saw in the various Bourne Identity films, but without much of the action and none of the pathos. Matt Damon's Jason Bourne didn't want any of the plot to happen to him, he wanted his life back. Clooney's American is just a sad paranoiac who really does have people after him. The American is filled to the brim with artistic scenes of Clooney sitting in a dull Italian cafe sipping a capuccino, alone, without an expression on his face. It's an anti-thriller. In a 'thriller' the audience wonders what will happen next. In this film audiences wonder if anything will ever happen, and then, when it looks like something might -- it doesn't.

After about 30 minutes of such scenes, this reviewer leaned over to his date and whispered, "Something is going to happen eventually, I just know it!" This reviewer was on the edge of his seat when an elderly gentleman wandered in front of the screen, while his wife waved to him for several minutes, finally stage whispering, "TOM. OVER HERE." Later, his cellphone declared, "Call... from... 555-555-4422..." and I wondered if he would answer it, while his wife told him to turn the phone off. Tom protested:

Tom: "My phone is off. It was never on!"
Tom's Phone: "Call... from... 555-555-4422..."

Would Tom answer his phone? Would his wife Mildred convince him that the phone was, in fact, turned on? Meanwhile, on-screen, Clooney sat in a cafe by himself looking off into space.

The American is really more of a character study of a man involved in espionage, with the espionage really just being window dressing, the narrative background. Clooney's character has some meaningful exchanges with the local priest, who fathered an illegitimate child years ago. He asks Clooney if he would like to confess his sins to him, to which the American responds, "We're all sinners, Father." Eventually, Clooney's agent tires of the conversation, pointing out the priest's own sin -- his illegitimate son. The priest admits to possibly not being 'worthy of these robes' -- but counters by pointing out that he loves his son nonetheless. What does The American have in his life that represents love? Nothing, it seems, until he meets a local prostitute named Clara, with whom he grudgingly enters into a less commercial relationship.

In the meantime he's hired to build a specialized weapon for the contact that helped him recently. There's a brief respite from the endless cafe sequences, and we get to see Clooney building the weapon, timing his hammer-blows to the sound of local bell tower clangs. By the film's end Clooney's character must decide whether he will complete the job for his benefactor or take a chance with Clara. Will he let his protective veil of paranoia down long enough to start a more normal life? Will audiences care? No.

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