They should have traveled alone
By John Anderson
Friday, December 10, 2010
So much of life comes down to bad lighting. Too little, you go blind. Too much, and the flaws become as glaringly obvious as the cockroaches scurrying back under the wallpaper. That said, "The Tourist" isn't exactly the movie equivalent of a passport picture. But the high wattage of stars Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie cast the film in a spotlight that would be unflattering for most movies, least of all an insubstantial, tension-free thriller like this.
Shot in Paris, Venice and against a few backdrops that seem to have originated in Burbank, "The Tourist" is based on the 2005 French film "Anthony Zimmer," which is a bit odd, since unsuccessful movies don't usually spawn remakes. It's also based on the old mistaken-identity trope, and as such suggests a romantic hybrid like "To Catch a Thief" (Hitchcock) or "Charade" (faux-Hitchcock). Suggestion is as far as it gets.
Less evocative of a Grace Kelly/Audrey Hepburn heroine than one made out of porcelain, Jolie portrays Elise Clifton-Ward, a woman of profound mystery who has brought her clipped British accent and rather dubious wardrobe to Paris, where she hopes to reconnect with her lover, the master criminal Alexander Pierce.
Pierce, it should be noted, communicates with Elise via handwritten messages on monogrammed stationery. Just wanted you to know.
One of those notes tells Elise to get on a train to Venice, sidle up to the first guy who vaguely resembles Alexander and thus confuse Scotland Yard and its desperate lead detective, Acheson (Paul Bettany), who has built up a reservoir of hate for the elusive Alexander. When Elise foists herself upon Frank Tupelo (Depp), a kind of dopey junior college math teacher from Wisconsin, Acheson is confused, at first. Most bewildered, of course, is Frank, who suddenly finds himself in the middle of international intrigue.
If anyone had asked us, we would have advised Twentieth Century Fox not to put Depp and Jolie together. Both are, if nothing else, decidedly solo acts: Jolie made the recent "Salt" work, but only because she was allowed to own the entire movie; Depp hasn't played a plausible 21st-century human since "Secret Window" in 2004. Since then, he has been doing his Keith Richards impersonation in those pirate movies or playing quasi-animated characters for Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam. (He has even lent his voice to "SpongeBob SquarePants.") Are these performers whom one expects, or even wants, to see uncomfortably cuddling up to each other? No. It's too gruesome.
More gruesome, even, than what happens to Frank, who is shot at, arrested, accosted by Russians, dragged through the canals of Venice and threatened with death by the sinister Ivan Demidov (a welcome Steven Berkoff). In the interim, Frank falls in love with Elise. It takes about 47 seconds. We don't buy any of it. Nor do we swallow the counterfeit Euro-stylings of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the German-born director whose Stasi drama "The Lives of Others" won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for 2006.
Though it may be heretical to say it, given that film's awards pedigree, "The Lives of Others" was frequently marred by the same cheap sentimentality and emotional shortcuts that hamper "The Tourist."
In a rather cavalier fashion, Von Donnersmarck implies certain qualities without his movie actually creating, inhabiting or working for them - including the nervous tension that should accompany the chase scenes, and the eroticism, however anemic, that might have arisen out of the Depp-Jolie matchup. Frank, for instance, is supposed to be in Italy recovering from the death of his wife. But he apparently finds Elise's attention so therapeutic it's never mentioned again. (This is supposed to happen, of course - if God didn't want Depp and Jolie to get together, he wouldn't have given us Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. But make an effort. Please.)
As besotted as he seems to be by his cast, von Donnersmarck is also in thrall to any number of other movies and directors, including "The French Connection," from which he borrows Elise's Paris Metro escape, and a dance scene that seems straight out of Gilliam's "The Fisher King." Cinema-as-shoplifting is okay, as long as you still get the feeling it's for a greater good. But that's something "The Tourist" is sorely missing.
Contains violence and vulgarity.