Monday, December 20, 2010

Review: The Tourist

     It's a classic Hollywood success story. Foreign director's first movie becomes a critical success and wins Oscar. Foreign director goes to America, gets a huge budget and makes... a film that's almost universally panned, with Peter Travers going so far as to say that it "deserves burial at the bottom of the 2010 dung heap." Critics have been as merciless with the second movie from German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck as they had been adulatory with his 2006 The Lives of Others. So I went to the theater yesterday not because I expected to enjoy myself, but because I had to find out how a promising director, two Oscar winning screenwriters, and two of Hollywood's biggest stars could come together to make such an alleged sheiße. Could The Tourist really be that bad?
     Well, one thing's for sure--it's not very good. The plot, which is based off of the French movie Anthony Zimmer, comes off as even more preposterous here. Elise (Angelina Jolie) is followed by British agents and gangsters as she tries to find her lover, Alexander Pearce, who just embezzled 2 billion dollars and got 20 million dollars worth of facial reconstruction surgery. To get them off his trail, he tells her to choose at random and seduce a man of his height and build, which turns out to be Frank (Johnny Depp), an inept Wisconsin math teacher on his way to Venice for vacation. Under ideal circumstances, this quid pro quo would have lead to a perfect blend of comedy, action, and romance. Under less than ideal circumstances, it could have at least given us something amusing and forgettable. It  doesn't. The two action sequences are just as clumsy as Depp's character, the chemistry is off, and the audience found more to laugh at in the trailers and advertisements than in the film itself. Von Donnersmarck claimed that he was trying to capture the elegance of Hitchcock thrillers like To Catch a Thief, but all the luxury, pretty costumes, and lush scenery give an impression of emptiness instead of glamour.
      Much of the problem lies in the script, which is surprisingly insubstantial. I'm not talking about lack of meaning or "substance" here, I'm talking about a lack of words. There's very little in there to flesh any of the characters out or to add life to their conversations. Sometimes there's barely enough to fill the movie's silences, so Frank ends up saying inane things like, "well, this is a really nice hotel."
     A lot of the rest of the blame can go to Donnersmarck, but it's not just about a smaller director proving himself to be incapable when he's given too much responsibility. It's not even really about him dumbing himself down to pander to a larger audience. The reason The Tourist never fully works is that Donnersmarck is too serious to add any levity. Well, he may try, but it's never credible. The whole movie is about escape, and Frank and Elise want nothing more than to break free from their obligations and from who they are, but instead of enjoying themselves, they just seem lonely. Lost in Translation lonely. In fact, these are some of the saddest characters I've seen in any movie this year. Intended or not, that's Donnersmarck's instinct contradicting the message of his movie (and perhaps its raison d'être). It would surprise me if this guy put much faith at all into escapism.


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