by ALEX CARNEVALE
A Most Wanted Man
dir. Anton Corbijn
Aesthetics are not my forte; and then, how is one to talk about color? It might be reasonably left to the blind to discuss then, just as we all discuss metaphysics, but those who have eyes know how irrelevant words are to what they see. – Braque
Philip Seymour Hoffman looks the part of a heroin addict in Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man. Breathing heavily through his nose, puffing on disgusting menthol cigarettes through the entire film, he is a walking suggestion to children of all ages to avoid the rigors of injectable drugs. Shaking at times to even lift a cigarette to his mouth, he mumbles through this adaptation of a John Le Carre novel that begins when a Chechen terrorist enters Germany by sneaking in through a port.
Unfortunately, he is not playing a heroin addict, only a spy. But he doesn’t let that stop him.
Robin Wright Penn observes Hoffman the way we would a water buffalo stranded by a bask of crocodiles. Reduced to a short-haired brunette so as not to outshine the beauty of an actress decades younger (Rachel McAdams), Penn plays the soft version of Claire Underwood she will be typecast as for the rest of her career. She and Hoffmann attempt to banter back and forth to keep A Most Wanted Man from slowing down to a crawl from sheer lack of inertia.
There is not a whole lot going on in A Most Wanted Man. Hoffman leads a small anti-terrorist unit trying to set up the Chechen by getting to his lawyer, played by McAdams. It turns out that the reason the Chechen turned to the Muslim religion was because his mother was raped and murdered by a Russian. Subject to his rapist father’s inheritance, he wishes to give the money away. Because his lawyer is cute, he gives her his mother’s necklace.
Before he can do that, Hoffman and McAdams have an incredibly awkward interrogation scene in a bare cell. Neither has quite mastered the intricacies of a German accent, so the ensuing dialogue is mumbled by both parties. Despite the vagaries of lawyer-client privilege, McAdams gives up her client in a few hours. At some point you wish they would drop the pretense of the German accents and talk to each other like human beings.
Riding around Hamburg on her dopey bicycle, McAdams’ face is a cartoon capable of surprise and polite apprehension; she barely even changes clothes in the movie. There is exactly one scene in A Most Wanted Man where she even moves her body at all, and that is to get on a train that allows her to lose an entire anti-terrorist task force. (Like much of what happens here, her escape is implausible.) McAdams’ bleached hair and tired face make her arguably more disheveled than the Chechen refugee. I wasn’t sure if the whole thing was a joke on Katherine Heigl’s career or what.
McAdams negotiates with a president of a Hamburg bank (Willem Dafoe) over the massive inheritance her client is to receive. Dafoe, like his female counterparts, puts on a look of intense empathy for Hoffman throughout A Most Wanted Man, indicating that if his colleague were to say, keel over during a particular scene he would be there to catch him. You can’t hide a basic look of concern and fear, and it is lucky for director Anton Corbijn (The Constant Gardener) that it fits with the theme of A Man Wanted Man.
Dafoe played characters older than this when Hoffman was in his thirties. Unlike his portly opposite act, Dafoe seems to be going backwards in time like Benjamin Button, while Hoffman hurtles towards an ignominous ending in a Greenwich Village apartment.
Watching a cast of non-Germans play residents of Hamburg doesn’t really work at all, and so A Most Wanted Man comes across like a bizarre stage show enacted for no discernible reason.
We know these are a bunch of American and Canadian actors. They show it in the faces, their movements and even their dress. None of them know very much about Germany, but this should not really matter, since A Most Wanted Man is only concerned with the global war on terror, a subject completely dull in its intricacies and depressingly obvious on a macro level. Making it seem complicated or fascinating is a waste of everybody’s time.
It is impossible to faithfully portray any of these people. A Most Wanted Man reminds us how ineffectual acting can be at times, how little such fakery hinges on. Corbijn’s spy thriller is partially ruined by the fact that we know Philip Seymour Hoffman is about to expire, that there is no chance whatsoever he is actually a man named Gunther. Obscured by his coming death, Hoffman’s subtle gestures at character for his policemen are similarly useless — his hints of homosexuality and a relationship with a young Muslim scion he has employed as a spy resonate only with his own private life rather than any actual aspect of the character.
In one scene near the end of the film, a vignette only included to memorialize his star, Hoffman plays a few lonely bars on his piano. Corbijn tries to be impressively restrained in his eulogy, but it is hard to care about a vague sting operation that climaxes in the signing of a few documents when larger matters outside the diegesis are at stake, such as whether the world is even worth living in.
I used to think acting was easy. Then I tried it, and learned how difficult it was. It’s lying, isn’t it? That takes a toll.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
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