Posted August 25, 2014 by William Dunmyer in Hoffman's Last Completed Film

A Most Wanted Man: Snooze-Fest

I wanted to like A Most Wanted Man so much because it was Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s last completed film. He was such a committed actor and brought brainy, serious work to the mainstream. He also directed a special and highly unusual film, Jack Goes Boating (2010), that far too few people have seen. In addition to acting, Hoffman might have gone on to a unique career in direction. His early death is a terrible loss for American cinema.

I hoped A Most Wanted Man would be a great coda to Hoffman’s career. But alas, this film is a dud — so boring that it’s hard to stay awake through it. It also contains a number of laughably non-sensical story elements.

Based on a 2008 novel of the same name by John Le Carré (yes, Le Carré is still churning them out!), the film tells the story of a German spy (Hoffman) operating on German soil somewhat independently of the German government.

At the start of the film, a young Chechen ex-rebel sneaks into Germany illegally, hoping to break free of politics and start a new life. The German and American governments want to capture him, presumably to get information out of him. Hoffman finds him first though. Keeping the Chechen’s whereabouts secret, Hoffman hatches an elaborate (borderline preposterous) plot to use the Chechen to ensnare another terrorist operating in Germany. Use the little fish to catch the bigger fish, as the cliché goes.

Russian actor Grigory Dobrygin plays the Chechen and gives by far the best performance in the film. Dobrygin has the slow-burn magnetism of Heath Ledger. I hope to see a lot more of him in the future. Dobrygin has almost no lines, but he’s the one you remember most.

Rachel McAdams plays a ridiculous character. She looks like a Playboy bunny, has bleached-blonde hair, and dresses in skin-tight outfits, yet she is a lawyer. She assists the Chechen, furthermore, for no apparent reason. As soon as she meets him, she becomes his biggest supporter, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he’s a former terrorist and could very well still be one.

Why would a lawyer be so clueless? Because the character is a plot device. A major character has to befriend the Chechen for the story to work. But no one spent any time figuring out why this character would risk her life to support a Chechen rebel she had just met.

Robin Wright plays a senior CIA official who specializes in the art of duplicity and treachery. She is also not a real person. She is simply designed to portray America as untrustworthy — another clunky, hollow story device. But at least Wright does it effectively. And (mercifully) she’s not tarted up the way McAdams is. Wright is given a weird hairdo though, which at times makes her look like Adolf Hitler. This was very strange — creepy in a way that didn’t work. It just looked silly.

Poor Nina Hoss, a major German actress who should be much better known in America, who gets the pointless role of Hoffman’s assistant. She just stands around looking dutiful. [See Hoss do real work in Yella (2007), A Woman in Berlin (2008), and Barbara (2012).]

Willem Dafoe takes the role of a German banker who helps the Chechen gain access to his father’s account. His motivation is also not entirely clear.

These are some of the greatest screen actors in the world. Why they all agreed to do this slipshod, poorly conceived film is uncertain. On paper, it must have looked like a serious script with a serious topic.

Maybe the American actors were just excited that the filming was going to occur in Europe. It was shot mostly in Hamburg and Berlin. Americans often automatically associate anything European with intelligence. As anyone who’s ever lived in Europe knows, there are just as many foolish Europeans as foolish Americans.

Despite the absurdities in the story, if the film had been directed well it might have turned into something tolerable. But Anton Corbijn‘s direction is very weak. Almost every scene is pitched wrong in some way, and the editing is atrocious.

Corbijn seems not to know the difference between silence and seriousness. Whenever he wants to convey seriousness, he films the actors walking around silently. But he doesn’t give them anything serious to be thinking about.

The Dutch-born Corbijn, incidentally, started out as a music-video director. He branched out into cinema with 2007’s Control, a biopic focused on the band Joy Division. Then in 2010 he directed George Clooney in The American (also filmed in Europe).

In my review of The American, I noted its “masterful cinematography and half-baked story.” A Most Wanted Man has the same type of half-baked story but none of the masterful cinematography. There’s almost nothing redeeming about this film. Hoffman deserved a better end to his career.

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.