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Achtung baby 

Love and war both take a hit in two subpar efforts

NOT BOGART AND BERGMAN The Good German, starring Cate Blanchett and George Clooney, doesn't amount to a hill of beans. (Warner)
  • NOT BOGART AND BERGMAN The Good German, starring Cate Blanchett and George Clooney, doesn't amount to a hill of beans. (Warner)

If there was any year-end Oscar bait title that I was especially jonesing to see, it was Steven Soderbergh's The Good German (** out of four), which opened locally this past Friday and will probably now beat a hasty path to DVD, since it failed to score more than one technical nod (Thomas Newman deservedly received a nomination for Best Original Score). The 1940s is my favorite decade for cinema, and film noir is my favorite genre, so how could I not get excited about a movie that promised to replicate those vintage classics from Hollywood's Golden Age, black-and-white gems that usually found Humphrey Bogart delivering snappy patter while filmed against smoke-choked studio backlots dolled up to look like a gangster's hideout or a WWII-era nightclub?

But while nowhere near as execrable as Gus Van Sant's WTF? remake of Hitchcock's Psycho, Soderbergh's big-budget equivalent of a grad school thesis project is a soulless confection so intent on everything looking right that it frequently forgets to add that most vital ingredient from classic Hollywood: a heart that's either beating with passion or thumping with cynicism. Here, there's not much beyond self-conscious mise-en-scènes and a lead actor who isn't mysterious or magnetic as much as he's simply aloof. Indeed, the whole film is so negligible that, even though I saw it a mere two months ago, I can't even remember the denouement. Ultimately, this isn't a whodunnit as much as a whocareswhodunnit.

George Clooney plays the central dupe, a military journalist who returns to postwar Berlin and discovers that his assigned driver (Tobey Maguire), an apparent psychopath whose R-rated language and actions basically render void Soderbergh's offer to take us back to the family-friendly flicks of yesteryear, has been dating his former flame (Cate Blanchett), a German woman who's been surviving by any means necessary. After the driver ends up murdered, our newshound takes it upon himself to crack the case and, in the process, try to reconnect with his ex-lover.

Clooney basically sleepwalks through the picture, while Maguire is too boyish to convey the proper degree of menace. In this weak company, Blanchett easily steals the film as the femme fatale who may or may not be as wicked as others assume. She won't make movie buffs forget Ingrid Bergman (or Marlene Dietrich), but she's about as good as German gets.

NO CAUSE FOR CELEBRATION Diane Keaton's image gets battered mercilessly in Because I Said So (Universal)
  • NO CAUSE FOR CELEBRATION Diane Keaton's image gets battered mercilessly in Because I Said So (Universal)

A NASTY PIECE of cinema posing as a romantic comedy, Because I Said So (*) is this year's Monster-In-Law, a vicious stab at the maternal instinct that also manages to humiliate the iconic actress at its center.

Diane Keaton headlines the film as Daphne, a 59-year-old woman who still dotes on Milly (Mandy Moore), the youngest of her three grown daughters (the others are played by Lauren Graham and Piper Perabo). Meddlesome beyond compare, Daphne wants to insure that Milly ends up with the perfect man, so she places an Internet ad and interviews prospective suitors. And yes, this leads to the excruciating (and overused) scene where Daphne meets a slew of goofy stereotypes, some drawn so broadly that they scarcely seem to come from this planet.

Only at the very end of her marathon sit-down does she find a suitable sucker: Jason (Tom Everett Scott), an architect with a smooth demeanor and a sizable bank account. Not realizing her mother's involvement, Milly ends up meeting Jason, and they seem to hit it off. But Milly also finds herself being wooed by Johnny (Gabriel Macht), a tattooed musician who's raising an ADD-afflicted kid on a minimum income and who lives with his own father (Stephen Collins). Clearly, this guy is Daphne's worst nightmare, but Milly finds herself attracted to his scruffy charms.

So does Milly do the sensible thing and choose between Jason and Johnny? Not exactly; instead, she holds onto both unsuspecting boyfriends, spending alternate days (and, for all we know, alternate hours of the same day) being wined and dined by them and, oh yeah, having sex with both of them. Now, you don't have to be Michael Medved to find this setup repugnant, or Milly a reprehensible character. Not even Mandy Moore's sunshine personality can cover up this disturbing revelation, which towers over the rest of the picture like Muhammad Ali over Sonny Liston.

As expected, director Michael Lehmann (who did better by the rom-com with the charming The Truth About Cats & Dogs) and scripters Karen Leigh Hopkins and Jessie Nelson (the latter responsible for the ghastly pictures I Am Sam and The Story of Us; stop her before she writes again!) try to stack the decks so audiences will fall for Johnny and reject Jason, but they're so inept at creating balanced conflicts that they even botch this assignment. In one scene, Jason gets mad (seething mad, not even screaming or hitting mad) at Milly because she breaks a candlestick that belonged to his grandmother. In the very next scene, Johnny instantly forgives her when she breaks a plate in the kitchen. Ah, we get it: Johnny's simply a nicer guy than Jason! Well, excuse my dip into material matters, but I think the breaking of a $1.99 plate from Wal-Mart hardly compares to the destruction of a cherished and irreplaceable family heirloom. But that's just me.

For all its faults -- knucklehead characters, grotesque racial profiling (check out the Asian masseuses), a horny dog not only humping the furniture after hearing moans emanating from an Internet porn site but actually licking the computer screen as well -- the movie's most unforgivable sin is its treatment of the great Diane Keaton. Jane Fonda had lost her acting chops by the time she returned from retirement to appear in Monster-In-Law, but Keaton is still an active and accomplished performer. But watching her humiliated on camera in the service of such a loathsome character (she shrieks! she whines! she falls on her ass!) is inexcusable.

Just a few years ago, Keaton played a character who was sexy, funny and intelligent in Something's Gotta Give. This one's more like Something Gave Out.

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