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2 Hours of the Albatross

Sean Penn's Over-the-Top Performance Doesn't Translate in 'The Interpreter'

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 22, 2005; Page C01

You can feel "The Interpreter" straining toward classicism with every ounce of its strength. Its ambition is admirable: It wants to be an adult thriller like its director's justly famous "Three Days of the Condor," with political and psychological reverberations, on real-world topics, with a reasonable cause-effect dynamic at play, clear motives, action plausible and not overdone, free of computer effects, full of recognizable, compellingly flawed characters, yet taut and gripping to an astonishing end.

Alas, as someone has said, there's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip, and "The Interpreter" slips like a drunk on a greasy playground slide in a high wind. You're left with admirable, even noble, wreckage, but wreckage it is.


Nicole Kidman plays a U.N. translator who overhears a plot to assassinate an African leader in Sydney Pollack's film that strains to match his "Three Days of the Condor." (Phil Bray -- Universal Studios Via AP)

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The grand old director Sydney Pollack (besides "Condor," he made "The Yakuza," "Out of Africa" and "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" among other distinguished efforts) plays with a situation that seems promising. An interpreter at the United Nations -- one of those linguistic geniuses who can make instantaneous real-time translation and thereby lubricate the wheels of diplomacy -- overhears a conversation in an arcane African language one night when she's come back to her booth overlooking the General Assembly. As it happens, she's one of six people in the West who understand the language, and what she hears seems to suggest that the controversial leader of a small country may be assassinated during a scheduled speech before the assembly in the next week. This is classic Hitchcock setup: a woman who knows too much and suddenly finds herself heading north by northwest as various mysterious antagonists begin to threaten and shadow her, and her "protector," an American Secret Service agent, is ambivalent toward her.

The woman -- Silvia Broome -- is very well played by Nicole Kidman, who refuses to coast on her beauty and instead, as the film progresses, reveals a tormented personality, and a contact to that country that brings her testimony into question. One problem: We see her overhear the threat, so we know it's legitimate.

But Our Hero doesn't. As a suspense ploy, this is a mistake, because the already crowded plot wastes too much time proving what we already know to be true. But it's not the big one. The big one is casting Sean Penn as Secret Service agent Tobin Keller.

It just so happens that I've spent the last two years on a project involving an episode from Secret Service history and as a consequence have met a fair number of agents. That makes me no expert at all, but I can say: Better men you've never met. These guys are like '50s ballplayers, square-jawed, modest, forthright, with their short, trimmed hair, direct gazes and muscular, vital bodies. They're the guy you'd want in the foxhole with you, except they'd be the sarge or the lieutenant already.

And then there's Penn. Did he do no research? Was he too selfish to even look at the type of man he was portraying? Did he notice nothing, pick up cues on anything? Agh, the hair is too long by several inches, the drinking habits (a slug every few minutes!) out of control, but worst of all is his face.

The badge of honor and price of admission into this culture is that professional mug: Among special agents of the U.S. Secret Service, the expressions run the gamut from A to A-minus, expressing at one end of the spectrum polite interest and far away at the other end mildly polite interest.

By contrast Penn's face is his instrument. For him "acting" is basically an issue of manipulating his face. Mobile, tormented, expressive, with welling tears or scowling mouth or brows raised in operatic astonishment, it dominates the movie in unpleasant, increasingly incredible ways, making the actor seem as if he's wandered in from "Days of Our Lives" or a high school production of "Hedda Gabler" in which he had the title role. Could he not discipline himself along more realistic lines? It's so stupid, and you'd think that a pro like Pollack would get it. He's a superb director of actors and he's worked before with high-achieving minimalists like Robert Redford and Robert Mitchum. That's what this part needed, not a grief-merchant tear-jerker!

By contrast, the very fine character actor Catherine Keener is excellent as his no-nonsense partner: she's every inch the believable special agent, controlled, efficient, dedicated, human but highly disciplined (as was, come to think of it, Clint Eastwood in the far superior Secret Service drama "In the Line of Fire").

The story follows three lines simultaneously: Keller's investigation of Silvia, Silvia's slowly revealed engagement in Africa, and Keller and Silvia's growing trust and eventual love. It is less interested in, but doesn't abandon completely, the more conventional thriller hugger-mugger, following the mysterious-assassin pattern, also finding time to stalk various murderous ploys and counterploys in a riven emigre community even while the dangerous arrival of the political leader to the U.N. draws closer and closer.

The best thing in the film, after Keener, is Africa. Pollack, after "Out of Africa," is an old hand and here you find his imagination fully engaged as he beautifully evokes a cry for the beloved country. The fictitious nation seems to be modeled on what was once called Rhodesia and now Zimbabwe, one with a long-entrenched white colonial class, a civil war, a "liberator" turned genocidalist and 12-year-old boy soldiers with AK-47s. It turns out that Silvia is the last surviving daughter of an old colonial family and her roots in that country are deep and ancient.

What Pollack is getting at is quite impressive: It's the tragic complexity of Africa, a continent so absurdly full of atrocity as it is of nobility, with problems that will not go away, ever, but can't be ignored either. In Silvia, we see these contradictions embodied and it's a shame, really, that the thriller aspects of the film and all the emotional fireworks from blubberpuss Penn obscure her.

That's another of its main problems. It can't decide which of its characters -- Penn's or Kidman's -- is more interesting and far too much time is spent on Penn's, a recent widower with that drinking problem and a tendency to unprofessionally spill his guts to civilians in a way no Secret Service agent would possibly consider. Ach, it feels so wrong, so willfully stupid!

In other regards, as well, the film is deficient. In "Three Days of the Condor" Pollack had the advantage of a brilliantly engineered thriller (by Washington writer James Grady) that seemed complex from the outside yet revealed itself to be simple as it was penetrated, leaving room for both thrills and the deepening relationship between Redford and the woman whose life he took over, played by Faye Dunaway. By contrast, the plot here, as it's penetrated, gets more and more complex until it's almost laughable; it has too many beats, too many reverses, and in the end seems unbelievable.

Then, as it turns out, most viewers will guess the Big Twist, and be annoyed at how ludicrously it plays out in an endless scene that again feels more out of "Hedda Gabler" by high schoolers on speed than anything, as Penn and the assassin shriek at each other as the assassin pushes a gun against the dictator's head.

The plot needed an interpreter into Esperanto or even rebus: Simple would have been so much better and someone should have put a spit-muzzle on the histrionic Penn.

The Interpreter (135 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for some intense violence.


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