Hitting the Pause Button: ‘The Tourist’

[10 December 2010]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

According to the current media zeitgeist, Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp are two of the most attractive actors on the planet (that guy Ms. J lives with, and his buddy George, also find entry on said celebrity list). They are movie stars in the classic sense of the word - acting is unimportant: looking impeccable in high fashion threads is premier job numero uno. Of course, it helps that Mr. D has an oeuvre overflowing with great performances. His pouty lipped leading lady? No so much. Still, they should make the throwback thriller The Tourist work like a post-modern combination of Stanley Donen and Alfred Hitchcock. Instead, this weird reinterpretation of classic Hollywood intrigue is more a kooky Calvin Klein ad than a crackerjack international mystery.

Jolie plays British femme fatale Elise Ward, lover and cohabitational confidant to billionaire thief Alexander Pearce. With Interpol hot on her trail and English mobster Reginald Shaw (Steven Berkoff) also looking for some crime/con payback, she is under constant surveillance. When a major lead comes up short, Inspector Acheson (Paul Bettany) wants to ramp up the investigation. But his button down boss (Timothy Dalton) believes he’s wasted too much of the Crown’s money on this mystery woman. On a train to Venice, Elise takes up with American math teacher Frank Taylor (Depp), using him as a decoy for her plotting. When everyone suddenly takes him for Pearce, the stakes get even more dangerous - and deadly.

Someone must have thought that this was a novel idea - create an old fashioned spy caper, filled with glitz and glamour, except in this new post-modern scenario, the woman in the “hero” and the male is the nattering, bemused “damsel in distress”. Such a switch would be made even more marketable by tossing two huge stars into the mix and peppered with the patina of a name foreign filmmaker (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck) fresh off a career defining effort (the Oscar winner The Lives of Others). Make sure to reference cinema’s past while forcing everything through a sieve of self-aggrandizing pluck and you’ve got a box office draw that keeps both sexes satisfied from the standpoint of eye candy and action…except, that’s not really the movie The Tourist is. Imagine an ‘80s era Roman Polanski pulling a sideways Charade without any subtext and you’ve got some idea of how light and frothy - and forgettable - this film is.

Make no mistake about it - this is a movie manufactured in the heads of studio suits who see magazine covers as dollar signs. It’s the kind of entertainment where the bottom line of the leads’ resumes mean more than anything artistic or aesthetically complex. The Tourist feels like a fancy dish at an equally exclusive restaurant. It looks amazing, but one bite tells the truth. The film has the aura of being a solid celluloid event - and then the narrative kicks into gear and everything sort of drifts away. One could easily accuse it of being all style over substance except it really has little of either.  Von Donnersmarck’s desire to imitate the cloying couture of a bygone era constantly confronts us, like pointless duplication for the sake of said similarities only. In an artform where imitation is not always the sincerest form of flattery, The Tourist is so busy kissing ass it doesn’t realize how far it has its head up it.

Both featured “icons” are problematic, for very different reasons. Jolie, back in brogue, offers no density, absolutely zero gravitas, and is consistently lost in her obvious and announced wardrobe choices. It would never be hard for the authorities to pick her out in a crowd - she’s the only one wearing a fitted Chanel suit that cost more than the water taxi she’s piloting. She was much better in this summer’s Salt. Then again, she had something substantial to do in that popcorn actioner. Depp, on the other hand, gives a great performance: unassuming; direct; a little goofy. He definitely comes across as a hapless victim of the story’s subterfuge…until you realize there must be more to him than electronic cigarettes and a love of pulp paperbacks. Because he is so devious in what he does, and because there is a major spoiler or two waiting in the third act, any suspense he generates is easily explained away. This also means any twist fails to work - either as surprise or satisfying conclusion.

Perhaps the oddest component in the overall mix is Von Donnersmarck. The Lives of Others was a brilliant deconstruction of life within the oppressive paranoia of East Germany circa 1984 (literally and figuratively). It was subtle yet strident. Here, the director seems completely out of his element, which given his limited track record (this is only his second feature film) is not hard to understand. There are moments when you can tell he has no idea what to do with his stars. He sets up shots only to have them underwhelm in payoff or purpose. While it’s novel to lighten the action in an action-oriented film, Von Donnersmarck’s approach is so superficial that said sequences practically float off the screen. One moment, our duo is in dire straits. The next, they are wandering the canals of Venice, upstaging the ancient beauty of said Italian city with their own preprogrammed appeal.

Had they truly wanted to make a glossy, garish riff on the classic Cary Grant/Grace Kelly romantic potboiler, everyone involved in The Tourist should have tried harder. The script - by a series of scribes all taking their cues from a 2005 French film entitled Anthony Zimmer - keep confusing minimalism with meaning. During the ‘40s and ‘50s, films like this relied on snappy dialogue and other sparkling repartee to get us past the always censored sex appeal. In fact, the verbal volleying between the leads was always one of the genre’s highlights. Here, Jolie and Depp speak in a sort of simplistic code - never too much, always way too little. Had they interacted in a more memorable and meaningful way, had the producers relied less on their pop culture radiance and more on exploring and commenting on the obvious archetypes, The Tourist might have been better. Instead, it’s a limp Vogue layout: easy on the eyes, completely devoid of anything else. 

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/134651-hitting-the-pause-button-the-tourist/