Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Lost in Transit: The Tourist

Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp in The Tourist
In the opening scenes of The Tourist, based on a little seen 2005 French film, Anthony Zimmer, a mysterious elegant woman, Elise (Angelina Jolie), is seen walking through the streets of Paris while she is being followed by a group of men who work for the International Police. After she sits down at a cafe, Elise gets a letter from a equally mysterious man named Alexander Pearce, who is identified as a former lover of hers. He tells her to board a train and pick out a man who resembles him and make the police believe that this individual is the true Pearce. The guy she picks is a self-effacing American tourist, Frank (Johnny Depp), a math teacher and spy thriller buff, who gets in over his head when he becomes almost immediately smitten with her. By the time they arrive in Venice and he shares her hotel room (but not her bed), Frank gets targeted by some gangsters that Pearce robbed of a sizable sum of money. Before long, Frank is running for his life and trying to figure out why everybody is out to kill him.

Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade (1963)
These opening scenes, luxuriously lit by John Seale, whet your appetite for the kind of sophisticated romantic thrills you used to get in wisecracking fare like North by Northwest (1959) and Charade (1963). But The Tourist turns out to be all thumbs and lost in transit. Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who took us pretty far inside the tormented life of a cipher in his sharp political exposé The Lives of Others (2006), has no feel for the casual, superficial pleasures offered by romantic thrillers. Despite having two sexy stars in the lead, von Donnersmarck gives you no clue as to why these two misfits would ever fall in love.

Angelina Jolie strolls through the movie, practically mute, like a classic ornament in motion, but the script -- credited to von Donnersmarck, Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) and Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) -- is a car crash of warring sensibilities. It provides no dialogue to make sense of Elise's secret life. Why does Pearce play such a strong role in her life? And why would she even consider the shaggy-dog demeanour of Frank? Jolie is as opaque here as she was last summer in Salt (only in Salt, she moved quicker). Depp is definitely game, though, and he has the better role. He gives his minimal lines a delectable spin while playing a man who is both stunned and intrigued by the circumstances thrust upon him. When he's in his pyjamas being hounded by the gangsters across the stone tile rooftops of Venice, he moves with the befuddled grace of Buster Keaton (who he invoked more explicitly back in Benny and Joon).

Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest (1959)
The best romantic thrillers, like North by Northwest, had stories that made little sense, but the breathtaking stunts and star chemistry usually lifted us over the plot holes. (Even The Usual Suspects, which McQuarrie wrote, had a deviously dense plot. But director Bryan Singer and the actors brought so much style and wit to the picture that you coasted over its intricacies.) In The Tourist, von Donnersmarck seems resistant to the carnal pleasures of the genre so all you get is plot and you see the holes before the actors fall through them. The core of the film becomes so inert that you perk up when the marginal characters turn up. Timothy Dalton, as Elise's boss, uses the kind of sly double-entendres you wish he'd indulged in more when he was James Bond. Paul Bettany, as a British agent on Elise's case, has an underwritten role, too, but he sparks some life and dry amusement into this rather strait-laced fellow. On the other hand, Steven Berkoff, as the head gangster, is so dour and humourless, he makes you long for Armin Mueller-Stahl.

Von Donnersmarck at the 2007 Oscars
In The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck showed how totalitarian cultures, aside from their cruelty and conformity, can also kill our appetite for pleasure and art. Ironically, von Donnersmarck inadvertently chokes off the incidental enjoyment that a romantic thriller can offer. Which is why, in The Tourist, he couldn't seem less at home and more a tourist.  

 Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Beginning in January 2011, Courrier will be presenting a lecture series on Film Noir at the Revue Cinema in Toronto (see 

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