Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Final Film of 2008: Good

The Academy likes literary adaptations. They also like films on serious subjects, so Vincente Amorim’s Good begins its limited release on this final day of Oscar eligibility in clear hopes it will find favor with Academy voters. We shall see. Based on C.P. Taylor’s highly regarded stage play about the Holocaust, Good (trailer here) does indeed open today in New York.

Mild-mannered literature professor John Halder thinks he is a good person (hence the title). After all, he has a Jewish friend. That alone should establish his bonafides as a tolerant German. He also cares for his sick mother and supports a temperamental wife. So when the National Socialist cultural authorities notice his obscure novel and ask him to write an academic paper on their behalf, complying does not seem like a significant ethical compromise. The subject of his novel and proposed paper: euthanasia. Does this slope sound slippery?

Suddenly everything is going Halder’s way. His novel is adapted into a motion picture and he ascends to the chairmanship of his department, not that he teaches very much anymore. He now holds an honorary position with the SS as their intellectual figurehead—a so-called advisor on “humanitarian” issues. He has even left his dramatic wife for an adoring younger model. The only challenge to his new life comes from his Jewish army comrade Maurice, who questions his growing involvement with the National Socialists.

Despite his mounting unease, Maurice refuses to abandon the country he fought for during the Great War. Smartly written and compellingly portrayed by Jason Isaacs, he is the redeeming character of Good. However, what he sees in Halder, as played by a wooden Viggo Mortensen, remains a mystery. Halder is supposed to be an ostensibly decent man, who lets ambition and denial blind him to the truth, but there is little sense of inner turmoil in Mortensen’s flat performance. Halder’s ultimate moment of revelation does not make much sense either. Having been mobilized as an SS auxiliary officer during Kristallnacht, he can hardly claim complete ignorance of his colleagues’ crimes.

Good is intended to be an intellectual examination of the attitudes which abet evil, with an emotional kicker at the conclusion. It might have been better served if it had not been released during the award season, where it will surely suffer in comparison to other related films. There are things to recommend in the film, including Jason Isaacs’ terrific performance and production designer Andrew Laws’ frighteningly realistic recreation of Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, their noble efforts are ultimately undone by a lackluster central performance. Good opens today in New York at the Village East.

Happy New Year from J.B. Spins.