Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is at risk of having his tourist visa revoked. Or at least he would be if there were any justice in the cinematic world. (Of course, the continued presence of Ashton Kutcher on the big screen proves that’s not the case.) The problem isn’t that von Donnersmarck has made a bad movie or that saying his name aloud reminds one of the worst part of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (I’m looking at you Eli Roth!). No, the problem is that after the absolute brilliance of his suspenseful and emotionally satisfying debut, The Lives Of Others, the director’s arrival in Hollywood is with little more than a beautiful but bland trip to Mediocreville.
French police, the kind that would make Inspector Clouseau proud, are following an impeccably dressed woman named Elise Clifton-Ward (Angelina Jolie). And by ‘following’ I mean literally driving just a few feet behind her as she walks to a nearby cafe. It seems she’s in romantic cahoots with a man named Alexander who stole billions of dollars from a gangster and then refused to pay taxes on his monetary gain. Interpol, led by a very determined Paul Bettany, is operating an expensive and extensive operation to capture a man who failed to pay taxes on stolen goods. They’re not after the gangsters. They’re after back taxes.
So that should give you a fair idea the kind of heavy stakes that are at play here.
Elise is instructed by Alexander to board a specific train car, find a man who resembles his own size and build, and then play footsie with him. Interpol suspects Alexander has had reconstructive surgery so this ruse is meant as a diversion to fool them into thinking this poor schlep might just be their man. Frank (Johnny Depp) is the lucky guy Elise chooses, and in the film’s best scene the two meet aboard the speeding train and discuss the merits of spy novels, electronic cigarettes, and the fact that women don’t like questions. Interpol agents take the bait, and when the duo arrive in Venice she seals the subterfuge with a public kiss and disappears. But the authorities aren’t the only ones after the stolen money, and soon Frank is running across rooftops trying to evade gun-toting gangsters, inept police, and a hotel bill that he most likely can’t afford on his math teacher salary.
First and foremost, The Tourist is a beautiful movie. The majority of the film takes place in Venice, and the partially submerged city proves once again that it is one of the more stunning and photogenic locales in all of Europe. Frank and Elise spend their time in and around extravagant hotels, upscale farmers markets, fancy balls, and lushly lit canals, and if nothing else the film will strongly encourage you to look into visiting the city soon. Jolie’s wardrobe is equally exquisite throughout and serves to distract from her bobble head.
But a film should be about more than simply beauty, and it’s here that von Donnersmarck’s movie takes the viewer on a road to nowhere. As mentioned earlier the impetus behind Interpol’s actions is an unpaid tax bill. This is hardly the stuff great intrigue is built upon, and while the addition of a reportedly brutal gangster is meant to add some degree of real danger we never feel it. There’s no palpable threat hanging over any of the characters, and even the small handful of folks who die do so in almost comical fashion.
Action scenes would do well to increase tension and suspense, but the two here are tepid and impotent in their ability to thrill. The rooftop chase appears almost entirely to consist of soundstages in the vein of North By Northwest’s Mt. Rushmore scenes. An homage perhaps? Doubtful. The promise of a boat chase through the Venice canals at night is squashed by the realization that von Donnersmarck’s adherence to slow and deliberate pacing extends to action scenes as well. The boats move at such a leisurely pace that bad guys on foot are able to keep up and repeatedly engage our heroes.
The absence of thrills, excitement, and intrigue leaves a large and noticeable gap between the opening and end credits. Not even Jolie’s disproportionately large head is enough to fill it, but she gets points for trying. Depp fairs better as the only performer here with real spark and charisma. (To be fair, Timothy Dalton is also good fun but he sees less than three minutes of screen time.) Frank is a simple man but far from an idiot. He’s easily flustered by the arrival of Elise, but he quickly grows to realize what she brings to his life. Depp balances that goofy charm with a hint of determination and desire, and he makes Frank into a mildly engaging character despite the uninteresting world around him.
The most painful realization here is that while The Tourist is not necessarily a bad film it fails miserably to live up to the standards of the director’s debut. It’s polished and looks amazing at times, but it’s surprisingly empty and weightless. The Lives Of Others showed von Donnersmarck capable of crafting a smart and devastatingly effective thriller without the presence of big name stars and flashy locales. With any luck, the next cinematic trip he takes will be less about the destination and more about the journey itself.
The Upside: Good to see Depp in a contemporary film that doesn’t require makeup and costumes; good to see Jolie not playing a super woman; Venice is still beautiful
The Downside: Extremely limited and poorly presented action; situation feels lightweight and inconsequential; the silly ending you dread is the silly ending you get