I was on the “Facts of Life” but I can’t hook you up with Tootie.

Golden Mug

NOMINEE: Supporting Actor (Jeffrey Wright)

Theatrical Release Date: 11/23/2005
Director: Stephen Gaghan
Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Christopher Plummer, Jeffrey Wright, Chris Cooper, Amanda Peet, Tim Blake Nelson, Alexander Siddig, William Hurt

Out in plenty of time to try and garner some awards nominations, writer/director Stephen Gaghan brings us the big business corruption epic, “Syriana”, based on a book by real life former CIA agent Robert Baer.

Of course, thinking of this movie prior to viewing, I kept wanting to call it “Traffic 2: Oil Company Boogaloo”. So it will come as no surprise that I was hesitant to sit down and see “Syriana”. Sure, there is a decent amount of buzz surrounding the film but Gaghan has been so hit and miss for my taste that I have to do a double take before checking out any of his films.

On the one hand, he wrote “Traffic” and “The Rules of Engagement”. Also, his screenplay for “Havoc” was somehow enough for Anne Hathaway to take off her top. So kudos to that. Though the film’s dialogue would not be confused with something by David Mamet by any stretch of the imagination.

However, Gaghan also wrote and directed the dreadful “Abandon” (Sorry TomKat’s better half). Should I tack on his writing credit for “The Alamo”? I think we’re understanding one another now.

His latest project, “Syriana”, is the convoluted weaving of an oil company merger embroiled in controversy, a financial advisement firm seeking to gain a rich Emir as their client, and the CIA trying to keep U.S. military interests from going in the crapper in the middle east.

The film’s tagline is “everything is connected” and that is what Gaghan has tried to do here … though I think a few more drafts of the script and another director may have been a better decision.

A decent percentage of friends and former teachers will tell you I’m not necessarily an idiot (insert joke here). However, there were multiple occasions throughout the film where Gaghan implies one action will result in another and doesn’t make it implicitly clear to the audience. I did understand what and why things unfolded as they did in the film, but it could have been done cleaner.

The plot(s) tried too hard to be clever and I thought Gaghan fumbled the multiple storyline ball. I’m not really a fan of that plot device unless it’s done well … so count me as a detractor on this issue.

As performances go, everyone was quite good. Matt Damon and George Clooney continue their love fest for one another, though they share only a fraction of screen time. Both do their parts justice, though I would like to see Clooney in a role where he isn’t ‘George Clooney’.

Every role, from “The Facts of Life” to “ER” to “Ocean’s Eleven” to “Syriana”, all I can see is Clooney. And that’s okay for the most part because he has such a likeable persona. Though, just once, it’d be nice to see him in a role that really challenges his abilities.

The remainder of the cast is a laundry list of well-known and respected actors including Christopher Plummer, Jeffrey Wright, Chris Cooper, Amanda Peet, Tim Blake Nelson, Alexander Siddig, and William Hurt.

All of them are superb in their roles, and yes, I am including Amanda Peet in that equation. She has done a decent job of trying to establish herself as a serious actress and avoiding the Denise Richards trap – and this film will help her along that path.

Of particular note, in relation to award nomination merit, Plummer, Wright, Cooper and Nelson all provided solid supporting performances yet again. While Plummer has had plenty of major roles throughout his career, the latter three deserve a vehicle of their own to drive around the google-plex lot. Get with it Hollywood!

Back to the film, I was disappointed that the film didn’t look better. As comparisons to “Traffic” are so natural to make, I was hoping for better work from both a cinematography and shot choice perspective. The film is drab, nothing really stands out and all of the locations were so clichéd I half expected some of the characters to walk into a bar where everyone knew their name.

As a side note, checking out the specs of the film on IMDb, it says that “Michelle Monaghan was cast as an important character in the story, but, when the audience’s reaction at screenings were negative about the too long running time, and her character was a sub-plot, her scenes were cut from the film.”

That’s a crying shame as this story was so crammed with all-too intricate sub-plots that this one more could have perked up my spirits. I could go into my rant on using screening audiences to ‘help’ a film, but my keyboard is starting to smoke.

So while I just spent a five paragraph essay on how this film failed (and apparently don’t know how to count), I’m going to buck the downward momentum and give it the passing 3 out of 5 rating. Yes, this film could have been much better and would have stood a better chance at competing for some statuettes if Gaghan had been better advised and/or trained. Still, “Syriana” was interesting and contained good performances so it’s not a complete loss. I just wouldn’t want to pay full price.