By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s “The Tourist,” a big, bountiful cat-and-mouser with hardly hidden aspirations to “Charade” (1963) and “North by Northwest” (1959), is like a fully loaded luxury car. While the overindulgence initially impresses, after a while you long for the engineering and élan of a much more sophisticated ride.
I mean, unless you’re a big fan of Angelina Jolie, certain to please the glamour seekers as mystery lady Elise Clifton-Ward, do we need all that star power preening and posing throughout the trip? We’re not supposed to know who she is, only that she’s connected to a financial crime genius and that Her Majesty’s Secret Service has her under surveillance.
Saddled with a somewhat more amusing stereotype, Johnny Depp as the common man thrown into uncommon circumstances exhibits a finer economy of effort. He is Frank Tupelo, a vacationing math teacher from Wisconsin, and therefore the title character, introduced to a world of derring-do courtesy of Alexander Pierce, the bigwig in question.
It’s a ploy, part of the instruction Pierce relays to Elise. Find a stranger his height and weight and make all those that are after the international intriguer think it’s him. Depp is priceless on the train to Venice when, after being thus handpicked, bashfully spars with the femme fatale. Credit where credit is due, Miss Jolie makes the little fantasy possible.
Her couture alone could make a shy guy from the Midwest feel he is certainly out of his league. Of course there is more to the equation than the mathematician originally allows. To frighten up matters, Steven Berkoff as Reginald Shaw, a bloodthirsty gangster worthy of Bond film villainy, is still angry about the $2.3 billion he was relieved of by Pierce.
Though filmmaker von Donnersmarck’s opulent effort is glib and action packed, one appreciates the puzzle more when looking back at it. It’s all rather well thought out and niftily arranged, though I doubt I’ll watch it again to see if I spot all the clues I missed, as I once said I would do with “The Usual Suspects” (1995), the modern icon of the genre.
While it’s happening, however, there is no magically engaging spirit, that special chemistry that melds thespic effort with script and direction. Unlike a Rodin sculpture, it didn’t already exist within the block of stone from which it was released to amaze one and all. Nope, it is scrupulously constructed, journeyman style, but not terribly brilliant.
This is a star vehicle, replete with all the appurtenances necessary to movie idol worship. Sure, Angelina Jolie is proficient enough as the smug Elise Clifton-Ward. But she’s more convincing as Le Jolie, goddess of silver screen and gossip mags. And Johnny, for all the Brando and Dean he evinces, does little to keep his cute quotient from peeking out at us.
Hence, the plot winds up playing second fiddle to the snazzy baggage its two grand poobahs bring to the party. Publicity stunt or sad fact of stardom, rumor had it that Mr. Depp’s live-in lady originally forbade the pairing. Reports then followed that Jolie and Depp obediently lowered the thermostat. There’s nothing here to contradict that dirt.
But surely the jealous lover didn’t warn against filming Venezia to its best, travelogue advantage. Oddly then, while cinematographic lip service is paid to the main tourist spots, the chase scenes through the canals could have been filmed in a funhouse. If it’s Venice you’re truly interested in, see “Summertime” (1956), starring Katharine Hepburn.
Now, there’s an actress who could transcend her celebrity, due in no small part to great confidence. Said Kate, “I don’t know what it is, but whatever it is, I’ve got it.” Thus, in sublimating herself to become Jane Hudson, said movie’s winsome spinster from Akron, Ohio, she had no fear that the Great Hepburn wouldn’t be there when she returned.
We’re not exactly sure what to make of Jolie’s persona, and that’s partly OK. After all, she is the tale’s baffling siren. But once that’s established, so what? Why should we care? Because she’s a billionaire embezzler’s courtesan? Sensing the disinterest engendered, Depp diplomatically dials down not only the steam, but also his ability to steal the screen.
The shortcomings are compounded. While Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s name does indeed confound Spell Check, his co-writing and direction result in rather predictable doings. Bearing the outward cues and earmarks of a glitzy, international crime caper, “The Tourist” never quite figures out its own artistic destination.
“The Tourist,” rated PG-13, is a Columbia Pictures release directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and stars Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp and Steven Berkoff. Running time: 103 minutes
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