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THE PERFORMANCE

A crusader answers the call of the antihero

Tobey Maguire takes a dark turn in `The Good German,' a test of his range and a reminder that he's good on two legs too.

December 10, 2006|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

THERE'S a moment in "The Good German," Steven Soderbergh's hommage to 1940s film noir, when baby-faced Tobey Maguire turns shockingly nasty. The quivery voice is still there, but instead of projecting vulnerability, it's full of ego and self-satisfaction. The wide-eyed look, so endearing from Maguire's half-decade reign as "Spider-Man's" lovable puer eternal, now simply serves as a scrim to hide sociopathic amorality.

As Tully, a low-level Army officer trying to make an illegal buck in postwar Berlin, Maguire injects the movie, which opens Friday, with a shot of decadent adrenaline. He is casually vicious, subjecting Cate Blanchett to rough sex; he whops her in the belly at another point, and for good measure tells a legless Holocaust survivor not to "Jew me down."

It's a kick to see Spidey go bad and a reminder that before he donned the iconic red tights, Maguire was known for his acting chops -- he certainly does effective jujitsu on his screen persona.

"He's a small-town kid who's come over [to Berlin], and he's gotten into the black market and he's discovered some power and some money," Maguire says of Tully. "He's kind of feeling that -- the ego, the greed, the seductiveness of it, but really, he's kind of a naive kid, and he's in above his head."

The star is sitting with utter stillness in a generic posh hotel room, yet he somehow manages to make the most impersonal of environs seem a little less rote by carrying his quiet intensity around, like a turtle with its shell. He's trim in a discreet button-up shirt and trousers, with a sparse beard that reminds you he's an adult but doesn't really make him look older. Although he's been playing 20 or so for the last few years, Maguire is actually 31, and the brand-new father of a baby girl with fiancee Jennifer Meyer, Universal Studios President Ron Meyer's daughter.

Maguire seems to relish the expectation-busting aspect of Tully, and the opportunity to finally play a character who's old enough to have an honest-to-God job. The only time he ever gives a suggestion that he might have a superhero alter ego is when he suddenly demonstrates throwing a punch and his arm snaps with the sudden fluidity of a panther -- the product no doubt of literally years of filming and training. The rest of the time, he appears thoughtful, friendly and guarded.

Superherodom can be a gilded cage -- just ask Christopher Reeve, George Reeves or Michael Keaton, none of whom ever really transcended his jaunt as Superman or Batman -- or a steppingstone. Who was Hugh Jackman before "X-Men"?

It's no surprise, then, that Maguire appeared so ambivalent about stepping up again after the first "Spider-Man" film -- an ambivalence, and a back injury, that, according to Kim Masters in the pages of this newspaper, led Sony to briefly fire him, and required the intervention of his future father-in-law, once a Creative Artists Agency honcho, to reclaim his signature role. None of the back story appears particularly relevant now that Maguire has completed two sequels. It's clear that the actor, who chooses his roles very, very carefully and works sparsely, is planning for the long haul.

"I've noticed there's a five- or 10-year cycle for actors," he says. "When the cycle changes -- there'll be some kind of turning point. Somebody will do a certain kind of role for five years or 10 years, and then they'll play another role and it will open up all these other roles." Indeed, it's certainly possible that Maguire has a future as the Peter Lorre of the 21st century.

In "The Good German," adapted by Paul Attanasio from a book by Joseph Kanon, soldier-journalist George Clooney returns to postwar Berlin and discovers an old flame, Lena (Blanchett), who's now ensconced in a mutually exploitative relationship with Maguire's character, and desperate to get out of town.

Shot in black and white on a Southern California back lot subbing for the devastated German city, the film's a self-conscious throwback to the 1940s -- Soderbergh prepared his actors by sending them such movies as "Casablanca," "The Maltese Falcon" and "Mildred Pierce."

There was no pre-game character discussion. "He's just like, 'Know your lines and show up and it will be fine,' " says Maguire, who explains Soderbergh wanted to mimic the studio system of the era where "actors were making three or four movies a year." This is anti-Method acting. There is no dredging up of deep personal traumas to serve the character. Instead, it's movie-star acting -- the Clint Eastwood school in which an actor's larger-than-life persona travels from movie to movie.

Explains Maguire, "They're using their personalities in different stories. It's kind of like that." And, oh yes, Soderbergh did no coverage, Hollywood's long-established practice of shooting scenes from different angles and perspectives and cutting the film together in the editing room.

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