Paul Rudd’s super power is likability. He seems perpetually as if he’s on the verge of offering to let you crash on his couch or checking to see if you’re free next Wednesday to help him move, and you’d gladly do both, because it’s Paul Rudd. We should seriously consider deploying him to global hot spots to see if, well gosh, international tensions could be calmed with free surf lessons and macaroni salad.
Rudd’s raw pleasantness makes him an ideal anti-Bond, which also makes him the man best suited to play average baseball player turned WWII intel-gatherer Moe Berg in The Catcher Was a Spy. Based on a true story, Rudd is the central element in a spy movie that refuses to paint by the usual numbers. He’s handsome, pulls attractive men (Westworld‘s Hiroyuki Sanada) and women (Sienna Miller as frustrated live-in girlfriend Estella) into his bed, and he applies a calculated disinterest to situations he’s got a close eye on.But he’s not dashing. Not brutish. Not strong. Rudd’s Berg is a smart Jewish jock who wants to serve his country but isn’t sure he can pull a trigger. The character expands on the concept of masculinity within a tragically narrow genre description by replacing action instincts with the doubts that must come naturally if you think about a deadly mission too long.
And that mission isn’t to wildly fire a machine gun at henchmen before blowing up MacGuffin Headquarters in Berlin. It’s to determine whether or not the United States government should kill a man.
Physicist Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong) is on the other end of that equation. He’s either developing a nuclear bomb for the Nazis or slow-rolling his research to prevent one. A loyal German or a traitor. A threat to humanity or its helpful savior. In other words, he’s the principal uncertainty Berg and the OSS have to wrestle with.
The rest of the film is littered with talented actors showing up for whatever is between cameo and supporting role. Jeff Daniels is the old soldier running the new spy organization. Tom Wilkinson is a Swiss physicist friend of Heisenberg’s. Guy Pearce’s inclusion as the action movie militant relegated to co-starring status is a nod to the film’s subversion, and Paul Giamatti absolutely disappears into the accent and mannerisms of Dutch-American physicist/technical advisor Samuel Goudsmit.
What the movie seems to strive for is a different kind of spy story, which is why it’s a shame writer Robert Rodat and director Ben Lewin weren’t quite up for the challenge. It’s a perfectly passable movie. Enjoyable. Forgettable except for its ambition.
It’s also hard to conclusively say that making a different kind of genre flick was the ambition because it’s so regularly undermined. The shoehorned genre elements are the absolute worst parts of The Catcher Was a Spy. A genre-standard, spontaneous sex scene between Berg and Estella is shot and edited so awkwardly that it looks like neither of them were sure where the proper equipment was located.
That may speak to more questions about Berg’s sexuality, but we don’t get to see the parallel same-sex scene to gain any insight so it leaves the filmmakers looking like amateurs. Especially since a bullet-dodging run through a bombed-out Italian town fares even worse. The action is flat. Camera work is dull. Actors probably credited as Soldier Who Gets Shot # 3 essentially stand around waiting to take their stunt fall when the squib goes off.
Even the training montages feel out of place. Lewin doesn’t seem comfortable shooting the titillating elements of a standard wartime spy yarn, but also doesn’t dare leave them completely out.
Unfortunately The Catcher Was a Spy is also plagued by clunky dialogue and an opening half-hour that stumbles in trying to introduce us to a person who doesn’t want people to know that much about him. We’re told Berg is over the top smart, but we only get glimpses of it through cliched shortcuts. He’s reading a foreign newspaper! He answers a question correctly on a quiz show! Curious things about his life are condensed to snippets, and it’s hardly clear whether he’s truly clever or merely cagey for mystique’s sake. Like deserting the movie somewhere between subversive and derivative, the filmmakers struggle to show Berg both as an average bum and as a brainy badass.
Maybe it simply succumbed to the same flaws many biopics suffer. Lives aren’t lived in an order convenient for movies. Not all important encounters find catharsis in the end. Yet the film is too surface level to fully grapple with all the messy complexity in Berg’s biography.
Ultimately The Catcher Was a Spy proves that there are fascinating people whose names struggle to emerge from the indexes of history books, who achievements deserve to be filmed, even though these particular filmmakers weren’t capable of fitting all that fascination into this movie. It shows the promise of a different brand of spy thriller, but only manages to bunt.
2.5 out of 5
Images: IFC Films