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Mood swing 'The Good German' re-creates novel through a dark lens

How does a movie that prerelease buzz had pegged as a surefire Oscar candidate get hastily buried in theaters?

And how does a gorgeously shot post-World War II romance set in the mold of "Casablanca," directed by Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh and starring respected stud George Clooney, the brainy and beautiful Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire -- "Spider-Man" himself -- find itself released with less fanfare than drivel like "Poseidon"?

Damned if I know.

It's a real shame, because "The Good German" is a fascinating exercise in directorial indulgence. Soderbergh deliberately shot the film, based on Joseph Kanon's novel, without zoom lenses and body microphones and entirely on studio back lots, all in an attempt at creating a flick that could have been slapped to celluloid in 1945.

This rather bold decision actually works nicely here, since the film takes place immediately following World War II, at the Potsdam Conference in Germany. Clooney plays Jake Geismer, a military journalist sent to cover the affair. But he's also seeking to find the flame he left behind in Berlin, the sultry Lena (Blanchett).

Gumming up his plans is Lena's new lover, played by a surprisingly gruff, nail-spitting Maguire. Adding to the enigma is the washed-up body of an American soldier and a high-level cover-up, as well as endless questions of just who does and does not deserve blame for a country's past.

It is, at heart, an old-fashioned story of thwarted romance, with noir plot devices and moral ambiguities in the mix. But there is a modern spark that never would have seen the light of day in the Production Code-dominated '40s.

Soderbergh has created a startlingly pretty picture, with sharp black-and-white photography, mysterious European locations and a sense of danger. But it's also pretty vacant, at least when it comes to the characters.

You won't much care whether or not Clooney and Blanchett end up together, or just what sins she's hiding. What does intrigue is the tangled puzzle of the plot. The answers aren't that surprising, but getting there is darkly involving.

Clooney, more jet-jawed than usual, is blandly adequate in the kind of role William Holden might have played. Disappointingly, though, he spends the majority of his screen time either snooping around corners or getting beat up. He is, by a mile, the most boring of the three leads.

Blanchett continues to demonstrate that she's the world's greatest actress not named Meryl Streep. Sure, she's basically playing Ingrid Bergman, but when it's done with such wounded sex appeal, who can quibble? And Maguire leads a rich supporting cast, pulling off the part of a cold-hearted jerk with aplomb.

Yes, everyone in "The Good German," including Soderbergh, is masquerading as an icon of Hollywood yesteryear. But this concept -- taking a noted novel, shooting it in the precise old-Hollywood style of Carol Reed and Michael Curtiz, populating the whole endeavor with modern stars and letting 'er rip -- is a thrilling, daring gambit. This is a bunt from Soderbergh and Clooney, while the grand slam, "Ocean's 13," awaits.

It has been a fantastic stretch for movies -- so much so that a fascinating, flawed film like "The Good German" can disappear quite quickly. But it's an experiment that's worth your time.

***

THE GOOD GERMAN

3 stars (Out of 4)

STARRING: George Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire

DIRECTOR: Mark Becker

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

RATING: R for language, violence and sexual content

THE LOWDOWN: During the Potsdam Conference in 1945 Berlin, a military journalist sees a lover from his past and investigates a cover-up.

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