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Clooney risks it, wins in 'The American'

It's likely some filmgoers will walk out of "The American" feeling disappointed, meaning their expectations will not have been met.

George Clooney's on-screen presence can be intensely charming, his signature grin winning and enigmatic. He's got loads of style, reminiscent of the elegant Cary Grant. This is the persona that dominated the recent "Up in the Air" and was showcased in the "Ocean's Eleven" franchise.

And this is not the character present in "The American." Instead, Clooney portrays an enigmatic man so stripped of affect that he seems impenetrable. After a bloody shootout on a frozen lake in Sweden, the man called Jack flees south to the mountains of Abruzzo, east of Rome. There he rents a small apartment and receives his next assignment: he is to build a custom assassin's rifle for a woman who is very specific regarding the specs. Fed Ex will supply everything he needs. Meanwhile, he spends time with the local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and a stunning local hooker named Clara (Violante Placido).

And here again is where "The American" may surprise. In films that have as the central character the archetypal lone gunslinger — the western samurai, the Eastwood man of few words and no name, or the now familiar Jason Bourne — what is missing in dialogue and complexity of plot is made up for with action. The Bourne films are exemplars of multiple cuts and handheld motion, buttressed by intense, fast-paced scenes of physical confrontation.

Instead, what unfolds in "The American" is a studied look at a man whose life is so spare, so devoid of humanity and relationships that he has become completely inscrutable, to others and to himself. The only crack in the stoic façade is his oblique interest in butterflies and a nascent connection to Clara, an attraction that is leavened by suspicion and a reflexive guardedness. If Jack is to begin again, the journey to self will be long.

There is something about "The American" that intrigues, however, as if Clooney decided to take the characters he portrayed in "Syriana" and "Michael Clayton" to a place even more remote and extreme. A risk, perhaps, but, in the end, one worth taking.

Going the Distance

If you enjoy romantic comedies but have felt a bit let down by the spate of puerile rom-coms that have screened over the last year, well take heart. The just released "Going the Distance" is just different enough, the writing just crisp enough, to make the film genuinely engaging. Even funny.

The plot is not new: single guy Garrett (Justin Long) and single girl Erin (Drew Barrymore) meet cute at a Manhattan bar (playing the video game Centipede) and feel an instant attraction. Both have sketchy dating histories. But you'll know immediately that this rom-com is not "You've Got Mail" when the couple head back to Garrett's digs, break out a bong, no worries, have a very brief conversation and decide to have a sleepover.

You'll also know that you're not in "Mail" country when Erin and Garrett and Garrett's two slacker friends (Charlie Day and Jason Sudekis) begin talking. About anything. They are completely at ease with over-the-top raunch, so casually profane, with offhand remarks about body parts and sexual acts, that it are both off-putting and funny, while reminding older audiences that if this is a mirror of what it's like to be late 20s or early 30s today, well, Dorothy, we're not in Kansas anymore. Especially not in Kansas. Not even in Iowa. Think of the script as a taboo smackdown, yet there is nothing about "Going the Distance" feels gratuitous.

But back to the plot. Erin is in New York interning at a major newspaper. Garrett works for a record label, assigned to breakout bands.

Erin will soon leave for California to complete her graduate degree in journalism. But they have six weeks to hang out, offered up in the requisite montage of them running on the beach, walking in Central Park, sitting in restaurants and kissing. Lots of kissing. Standard falling-in-love, we'll-always-be-happy stuff.

The challenge for them begins when Erin leaves and they attempt a long-distance relationship. All rom-coms must have obstacles that the couple have to overcome while driving themselves and their friends crazy. Plus overcoming said obstacles offers a myriad of comedic and dramatic opportunities.

So, for the newbie couple it's phones and planes and Skype, coast to coast, while working out trust issues, what are you wearing?, I miss you, this is killing me, while reassuring one another that all is well, nothing has changed. Of course, this is all headed toward some kind of resolution. No one is worried.

In a nutshell, well, more than a nutshell, as rom-coms go, "Going the Distance" is sweet and entertaining. And not to forget, Barrymore is a gifted actress who only gets better with each film.