Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Tourist

When The Tourist was nominated for three Golden Globe awards, including acting nods for the two leads and a Best Picture nomination, it was reported that Angelina Jolie (and members of the press) had the initial reaction of laughing.  There was a mild hubbub about this, as well as the fact that the actors and movie were categorized in the "Comedy/Musical" section, when the movie was promoted as a romantic thriller.  All of these are good reasons to not watch The Tourist.  However, I'm a pretty big Johnny Depp fan, and I'm not adverse to a movie that wants to ogle Angelina Jolie.  How bad can it be?

Elise (Angelina Jolie) has been hanging out in Paris for a while, and she is being tracked by the French police and Interpol.  They are aware of her every move and everyone she interacts with; for her part, Elise is well aware of them, too.  One morning, as she goes about her normal routine, a courier delivers a letter to her.  The letter is from Alexander Pearce, her lover that she has not seen in over two years, as well as the reason she is being tailed all day, every day.  He tells her that he has a new face and that she should board a specific train to Italy, pick someone of his approximate height and weight, and talk to this stranger on the train.  The idea is that Interpol will assume that the random Alexander-esque fellow is Alexander, creating enough confusion for the real Alexander to swoop in and take Elise away with him.

There are several men on the train that fit the general description of Pearce, but Elise eventually chooses a shy math teacher on holiday, Frank, who is apparently unaware that he looks like Johnny Depp and has no reason to be shy or self-conscious.  The plan works beautifully, Elise wows Frank because she looks like Angelina Jolie and she's paying attention to him, and Interpol is certain that Frank is their man.  Until, that is, they check his ID and figure out he's Frank.  Criminals don't have Interpol's resources, though, and Pearce stole billions from a crook; these bad guys chase after Frank because they don't know any better, and Interpol doesn't interfere because they don't want to scare off Alexander Pearce.  Poor Frank is left bewildered and endangered by his chance encounter with Elise, and his only chance of survival comes from Elise, who feels bad for using him.  Or is it something more, I wonder...?

The basics of this story are a little old school, but they're not bad.  Mistaken identities are a classic source of both drama and comedy, but it's been a while since a major film has used this theme in a dramatic film.  That said, they do the whole thing wrong.  This movie could have played out like North By Northwest, but it makes the fatal choice of making the main character, Frank, a bumbling idiot.  Well, maybe that's a bit harsh, but his character is pretty awful.  He's shy, awkward, occasionally stammers, and he is always saying the wrong thing.  That would be fine if this was a comedy, but it has only slightly better comedic chops than Schindler's List.  In other words, if you're laughing, you're a racist asshole.  The other characters are fine, I guess, but the fun of romantic thrillers comes from the main characters being romantic and/or thrilling, and Frank is neither.  I wouldn't mind Frank's character if he were funny or dramatic or cute, but he's just a lame character, any way you slice it.

So, how was the acting?  Angelina Jolie played her part pretty darn well.  She had to be the sexy spy lady with a mischievous smile, and she played the part effortlessly.  It's not a great part for her, but she looks good and got to spend time in exotic locations to film it, so I'm not going to criticize her for taking such an easy role.  I liked Paul Bettany as the Interpol inspector that is obsessed with catching Pearce; his obsession makes him both clever and myopic, and I liked the idea of the main policeman in the story having such a critical flaw.  Timothy Dalton has a small role as Bettany's superior, and he has all the charm you would expect of a former James Bond.  Steven Berkoff became famous playing villains in the 80s, and age hasn't made him any less evil.  Sure, he's a little generic as a bad guy, but he's still fun to hate.  I was a little surprised to see Rufus Sewell show up in a movie I was watching (he's not exactly a sign of quality filmmaking), but I didn't mind him at all in his small role.  Johnny Depp, though, was pretty awful.  It's not that he did a bad job with his performance --- he played an awkward amateur quite well --- it's just that every choice he made with his character was the wrong one.  I don't want to be that jerk who argues that movies should only be a certain way, but the rest of The Tourist is not a comedy or a drama, it needs someone to act sexy or suave to make the movie work.  He opted for stupidly awkward.  It didn't work.
It'll take more than a Singapore Sling to forget this mess.
With so much of the cast doing a good job, but the main character falling flat, that leaves writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck with a somewhat tarnished product.  I really liked how the movie looked; the European locations made for some very pretty scenes, and von Donnersmarck clearly has an eye for wide shots.  The action scenes were done pretty well, including a boat chase scene that didn't completely suck.  And I mean that as a compliment.  I liked most of the acting, which shows that he was able to convey his concept of the film to most of the actors.  However, since he wrote Frank's character and directed Depp's performance, I can't avoid criticizing the man.  To give him credit, von Donnersmarck supposedly had less than eleven months to sign up for the movie, write the script, make the movie and have it ready for its premiere, which is hasty at any level of filmmaking, much less something that is expected to be a Hollywood blockbuster.  Now, I get why he and Depp made the choices they made with Frank's character --- it all makes sense by the end of the picture --- but I completely disagree with those choices.
Making bad movies is more tiring than it looks.

This would have just been a disappointingly mediocre movie if I was just left bewildered by Frank's character, but it gets worse.  There's a twist.  SPOILER ALERT: It turns out that Frank is really Alexander Pearce.  Yup.  It's not mistaken identity at all.  He instructed Elise to find someone that fit the same basic description as him (fit and about 6' tall) on the train, and she encountered him by chance, after considering many other options.  So, his plan could have totally failed if she chose any of the other twenty guys on the train that fit his description.  Fabulous.  But it gets better.  When he's alone, Frank acts like Frank.  He never breaks character or gives any hint that there is something beneath his clumsy facade.  I'll be honest with you, I saw the twist coming.  Unfortunately, it was the product of me thinking, "You know what would make this movie much, much worse?"  In other words, the twist negates 95% of the whole damn movie.  You expect me to accept that a master thief's master plan was to be chased by Interpol and hardened criminals until he has the chance to say "Psyche!" and run off into the sunset?  No, I can't accept that.  It's just so bad.  It ruins a perfectly mediocre movie and makes it a bad movie.

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