Capsules

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But is the movie itself any good? Sadly, no. George Clooney tamps down the charm in the Joseph Cotten role as a patsy reporter, stumbling ass-backward into all sorts of shady cover-ups and secrets involving his sultry former flame (Cate Blanchett, delivering a massively scaled pre-Method turn that's simply a joy) and his hotshot black-market hustler GI chauffeur (a lamentably screechy Tobey Maguire).

Adapted by screenwriter Paul Attanasio from Joseph Kanon's novel, this is one bleakly convoluted bit of business, involving war crimes, prostitution and nuclear secrets. The story is so depressing that a final airfield shout-out to Casablanca feels vinegary and mean-spirited.

Even more jarring is Soderbergh's head-scratching insistence on the constant use of profanity from all involved. (The Good German has more cussing than The Departed.) Playing it straight with period-specific details while ratcheting up the sex and violence to thoroughly modern levels results in a strange, clanging discord--the spell never holds. (It's like watching the F-word scene in Far From Heaven for two hours.)

Of course this was probably Soderbergh's point--to upend our voluptuous classic-movie memories with a nasty dose of grim reality. But knowing that doesn't make it any easier to watch.

The Good Shepherd
Directed by Robert De Niro
C-
Reviewed by Sean Burns
Opens Fri., Dec. 22

My goodness, WASPs are creepy ... and dull too.

At least that's the message one takes away from The Good Shepherd, Robert De Niro's second directorial effort, an egregiously overlong, one-note slog through the secret history of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Matt Damon continues to stake his claim as one of our finest and subtlest young actors, delivering a tiny tour de force of white-bread emotional constipation as Edward Wilson, a distant young Yalie who--over the course of what feels like an eternity--moves from naked Skull-and-Bones induction ceremonies to engineering the Bay of Pigs invasion, all while surrounded by the same bland, blond members of the chattering class.

Granted, this ain't such a bad idea--examining how, in the wake of WWII, a certain sort of blue-blood elite moved to the forefront of our burgeoning national defense industry, often using the same recruiting methods and veils of secrecy they learned in their fraternities. The Good Shepherd clearly wants to be the Cold War Ordinary People. (Timothy Hutton's cameo can't be an accident.)

But the problem is De Niro nails a particular chilly, paranoid tone and then stubbornly refuses to modulate it for damn near three hours. It's a movie of endless stoic pauses and epic pregnant silences. Damon's Wilson begins the film as such an impacted, closed-off cipher, there's really nowhere left for him to go when the blunders and bodies begin piling up. He retreats so far inward that eventually he's barely there, which is a fine piece of acting--but not really one you'd want to hang a whole movie on. (2001: A Space Odyssey's Keir Dullea co-stars, which is sort of fitting, since Damon's already playing HAL.)

A wildly miscast Angelina Jolie does what little she can in the stock nagging wife role. De Niro has more luck with bit parts from famous friends Alec Baldwin and Joe Pesci, both of whom bring too-brief moments of ethnic flavor to the starchy proceedings. The Good Shepherd is handsomely mounted and well-intentioned, but also so slow and stuffy you'll wish somebody would just open a window already.

The Pursuit of Happyness
Directed by Gabriele Muccino
B
Reviewed by Matt Prigge
Now showing

For the easily grossed-out (hi), The Pursuit of Happyness faces an uphill battle. Approved by Oprah (blech), attempting to make a big star look serious (oy) while also gunking him up (feh), Happyness also sports the kind of obscenely isolated pulling-up-from-the-bootstraps yarn that keeps Republicans in office (boo!). And did I mention the too-cute misspelling of its title? (Yuck.) Forget about Will Smith and his son trying to scrape by during a six-month unpaid internship at Dean Witter Reynolds. How will the film fare among grumps?

Shockingly well, at least in my case. There's no denying Happyness, culled from the memoirs of (now-multimillionaire) Chris Gardner, is pure inspirational pablum. But it's the kind that earns its fuzziness, basically by putting it off till the last possible moment.

Torn between family responsibilities and a need to do something with his smarts (set in 1981, the film makes extensive use of the newly arrived Rubik's Cube), Smith watches as his beleaguered wife (the once-promising Thandie Newton, as with Crash, more than happy to exacerbate a misogynistic creation) leaves him with their adorable moppet (played by Smith's adorable moppet).

Gardner's tale takes us from cheap hotels to sudden evictions to nights spent in subway bathrooms, but Happyness isn't an everything-goes-wrong-all-the-time piece of sadism. It's relentless, but only in the sense that it, like Smith, is always on the move. Indeed, there hasn't been this much running in a movie since, well, Run Lola Run. (Smith, who finally follows up on his Six Degrees of Separation promise, deserves an Oscar for dexterity alone.)

Directed by Italian filmmaker Gabriele Muccino (the original The Last Kiss) and written by Steven Conrad (The Weather Man), the film is relatively understated (Smith cries once) and eccentrically detailed. One of the nicer touches finds Smith still lugging around a slew of "bone density scanners"--an earlier harebrained scheme and a constant heavy reminder of a previous failure.

Happyness may not delve deep into the dark side of the American capitalist dream. It just lives it in every nervy, ragged frame.

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