For a rough idea of what was going through George Clooney’s head when he signed on to The American—apart from the set’s proximity to his Italian villa—look no further than the only other American face to appear in the movie. It belongs to Henry Fonda, shown on a flat-panel television in his entrance to Once Upon a Time in the West, at the moment when the beloved Hollywood icon shoots a defenseless ginger child. Clooney’s mug is getting nearly as rugged and weathered as Fonda’s was in 1968, and he’s also indulging in some subversion of his persona.
The American opens with Clooney and his lover (Irina Bjrklund) taking a stroll through the Swedish snow, only to be ineffectually ambushed by some camouflaged gunman. Sensing his cover has been blown, Clooney tells his special lady friend to phone the police and, as she runs off, he sends a bullet through her head. Whatever you may say of this, it is very un-Danny Ocean behavior. And if you listen closely, you can hear director Anton Corbijn whispering in his ear: “Do it, George. It’s for art.”
Corbijn, whose Ian Curtis biopic Control repeatedly confused intensity of imagery with human meaning, has now made a spy picture slow and mannered enough to expose its fundamental silliness. The American is proof that a movie can be expertly stitched, pressed and tucked, but still carry on its sleeves a distinct whiff of the ridiculous. It’s John le Carré loopy on Ambien.
“You have been a great sinner,” a priest tells Clooney when he arrives in an Apennine mountain village. “You are still sinning.” He should know: The good father is played by Italian actor Paolo Bonacelli, who starred in Passolini’s 1975 Sal, or the 120 Days of Sodom, in which his character forced a captive teenage girl to literally eat his shit. If this guy says you’re a sinner, you’ve done some sinning. But it’s hard to say what Clooney’s done—other than executing his girlfriend; that was wrong, certainly. He’s an assassination expert of some kind, assigned to procure a rifle for his handlers. He likes to visit a local prostitute (Violante Placido) and do her from behind. He has a tattoo of a butterfly on his back. I’m getting irritated again as I type this.
The American moves at a caterpillar’s pace, announcing its importance with every ominous rendezvous over cappuccino. “I’m here for my pleasure, not for yours,” Clooney tells Placido, and I believe him about the second part. I think it was Christopher Hitchens who said that “the four most overrated things in life are Champagne, lobster, anal sex and picnics.” At least Clooney doesn’t have the lobster.