The AmericanFor a critic, loving a movie means never having to say you're sorry ... for a review that makes no sense to the average moviegoer. That's the conclusion I came to after being swayed by rave reviews for the George Clooney thriller 'The American' such that I drove 25 miles to a theater to see it.

I didn't hate it; anything with Clooney in it is watchable, and the nudity provided by his Italian co-star Violante Placido was really watchable. But otherwise, I would advise the crowd lingering at the ticket window to "move on, there's nothing to see here."

Before I retired from regular movie reviewing two years ago, I was often at the answering end of the question, "What's wrong with you guys?" In other words, why do critics hate movies we love and love movies we hate? That's a gross exaggeration, of course. Collectively, critics and moviegoers are in agreement more often than not.

But there are instances where some critics have an entirely different experience from those of casual moviegoers and even from other critics. And on those occasions, which I believe includes that of 'The American,' they can forget who they're talking to and start dropping references that only a fellow cineaste would find useful. The AmericanFor a critic, loving a movie means never having to say you're sorry ... for a review that makes no sense to the average moviegoer. That's the conclusion I came to after being swayed by rave reviews for the George Clooney thriller 'The American' such that I drove 25 miles to a theater to see it.

I didn't hate it; anything with Clooney in it is watchable, and the nudity provided by his Italian co-star Violante Placido was really watchable. But otherwise, I would advise the crowd lingering at the ticket window to "move on, there's nothing to see here."

Before I retired from regular movie reviewing two years ago, I was often at the answering end of the question, "What's wrong with you guys?" In other words, why do critics hate movies we love and love movies we hate? That's a gross exaggeration, of course. Collectively, critics and moviegoers are in agreement more often than not.

But there are instances where some critics have an entirely different experience from those of casual moviegoers and even from other critics. And on those occasions, which I believe includes that of 'The American,' they can forget who they're talking to and start dropping references that only a fellow cineaste would find useful.

For example, there's this from the usually reader-friendly Roger Ebert: "['The American'] ... is a gripping film with the focus of a Japanese drama [and] an impenetrable character to equal Alain Delon's in 'Le Samourai,' by Jean-Pierre Melville."

And from Michael Wilmington's rave at Movie City News: "['The American'] summons up memories of esoteric European suspense dramas like Melville's 'Le Samourai' and 'Le Cercle Rouge,' and Antonioni's 'The Passenger' ..."

"Impenetrable"? "Esoteric"? These are reasons to rejoice?

The AmericanTo those who haven't seen those movies -- which would be roughly, oh, 98-plus percent of all moviegoers and probably 50 percent of working critics -- 'The American' would be more apt to summon up memories of being stuck in an elevator, or in a waiting room where the only magazines were Popular Mechanics. They would find the story, about a professional gun maker who facilitates assassins, lacking in a compelling storyline and in developed characters, which are precisely the things its satiated critics loved about it.

Not long ago, I might have been enthralled by the same elements. Critics are compelled to see almost every movie that is released, and most of what they see -- certainly, most movies boasting a star the magnitude of Clooney -- are meant to be understood by every paying customer in the world. Ambiguity in a script will get a screenwriter tossed out of a studio executive's office faster than a direct insult.

But ambiguity is a fact of real life and a cornerstone of grown-up storytelling, so when a movie comes along that is well-made, ambiguous and atypical, critics start to feel a stirring in their loins. And when they further find it to be existential and reminiscent of foreign art films or the best of '70s American movies -- all of which has been said of 'The American' -- there's the potential for that much hoped-for and increasingly rare moviegasm. I haven't had one of those since 'Pan's Labyrinth.'

In defense of those critics who've over-praised this small, self-consciously arty and character-thin film, they had spent the first two-thirds of a weak 2010 going about their jobs with the nose-holding optimism of Dumpster-divers, hoping to discover a nutritious morsel and absolutely giddy to come upon a half-eaten (or even half-baked) steak. But I'm out of the diving business; I want to know I'm going to be fed.

In most reviews for 'The American,' Clooney is properly credited for his restrained performance. Not many movie stars are as willing as he is to withhold the mannerisms (in his case, the killer smile, the seductive gaze, the oozing cool) that their fans expect. He is a risk-taking actor, and that is admirable. But as the mysterious, understandably paranoid character known alternately as Jack, Edward and Mr. Butterfly, Clooney is so low-key he almost disappears into himself.

The AmericanPerhaps the most confusing element of the movie is the sudden onset of love that occurs between Clooney's aloof character and Placido's Clara, who would win a contest for the most beautiful, sensitive and downright lovable prostitute a traveling man has ever come across in a medieval mountaintop village with a population under 500. Miss Moneypenny, book me a room in Castel del Monte.

In my reading of reviews for 'The American,' I found one of my favorite movie writers, Movie City News' David Poland, attacking another of my favorites, the New York Times' A.O. Scott, for suggesting that Clara falls for Mr. Butterfly because of his sexual prowess. No, Poland corrects, she falls for him because of "his seeming honesty and her wish to find another life with a good man." You know, like Julia Roberts in 'Pretty Woman.'

I can see how Scott came to his conclusion. In the film's featured sex scene, Dutch director Anton Corbijn trains his camera, left to right, on Placido's bare breasts and face, while Mr. Butterfly does something out of frame to the left that causes her to moan and grimace appreciatively. A guy could earn a bordello coupon and win a Customer of the Month award for tipping like that.

My point here is that two knowledgeable, smart critics can watch the same scene in a movie and come to different conclusions. They can watch the same movie and come to different conclusions. That's why there's more than one of them. But after being led to 'The American' by rave reviews, I'm beginning to understand why regular moviegoers wonder what's wrong with us. They haven't seen 'Le Samourai.'