01/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Review: Good -- Reflecting the Bush years

"Hitler's a joke," Viggo Mortensen tells a friend in the new film, Good. "He won't last."

Gee -- didn't they say that about George W. Bush?

I've been wracking my brain for the right quote or analogy to capture the gradual encroachment and irresistible rise of evil which the Nazis represented -- but all I could come up with was the one about the frog in the pan of water that's gradually heated to boiling. And it's too facile to invoke the current Bush administration, too trivializing of the Holocaust. More about that in a minute.

Still, why bother when these ideas are so casually captured in this adaptation of C.P. Taylor's play of the same name?

That transformation is embodied in Prof. John Holder (Mortensen), a distracted literature professor who, in 1937, is summoned to the Chancellery of the Nazi high command. A novel he wrote some years earlier -- about a man who euthanizes his terminally ill wife to spare her pain -- has caught the fancy of Hitler and Goebbels. Would Holder like to work for the Nazis to put his ideas into practice?

Nothing big, mind you -- just some writing to justify mercy killing as a humane practice. And the Nazis are paying big money.

How can Holder resist? After all, his wife seems perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown. His mother has both tuberculosis and dementia. And teaching literature isn't nearly as fulfilling since the Nazis started burning books.

So to suddenly be appreciated -- even if it's by the Nazis -- doesn't ring alarm bells in his head. True, their ideas are dangerous, but they don't threaten him, because he's not Jewish. When he's blindsided by an assertive female student (Jodie Whittaker) who seduces him away from his high-maintenance wife, Holder is suddenly afloat in a sea of moral relativism, drifting into dark waters.

Writer John Wrathall, working from Taylor's original play, employs the same device Taylor did to explain Holder's ability to disengage from reality: Holder plays classical music in his head, which creates a layer of illusion over the reality before him. It's like a form of self-hypnosis, except in teaching himself not to give in to the urge to smoke, Holder is removing himself from the world at large, finding ways to rationalize his own selfishness.

Which, in the end, is the problem with this script and this film. Ultimately, Holder is both spineless and amoral; by the end, he's wearing an SS uniform and feeling no guilt -- after all, it's just a uniform. Yes, the SS is herding Jews into camps to kill them -- but Holder is doing what he can to save his own Jewish friend, the libidinous psychiatrist Maurice (Jason Isaacs).

As played by Mortensen, Holder seems less like a good man who gets lost than like a distracted man who simply gives in to distraction. Rather than doing the right thing, he starts doing the easy thing, never reckoning on a reckoning later on. He's living in the moment and the moment feels good: a new mistress, more money, less hassle from wife and mother, a measure of power.

He's a hard character to care about, even though Mortensen is an exceptionally human actor. It's almost impossible to understand what a vibrant character like Maurice, played with laser-intensity by Isaacs, would see in Holder as a friend, except possibly as a foil.

We've just suffered through almost a decade of selfishness and self-serving in the name of public service. And really, when the best thing you can say about a president is that he didn't foment a genocide (at least not at home), well, moral relativism really does rule, doesn't it?

In that sense, Good is an unintentional reflection of the Bush years -- and the Bush administration. But it's a mediocre movie, nonetheless.

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