Star power can't quite redeem twisty, but flawed 'Tourist'
You know the story: unsuspecting pigeon snookered in by a sexy stranger, only to be drawn into a deadly game by powers beyond his control. And that's pretty much the story we get through most of The Tourist, a Hollywood star vehicle that positions Johnny Depp, as an innocent abroad, and Angelina Jolie, as a glamorous mystery woman, against the gorgeous backdrop of Venice.
But it's all a matter of perspective in what turns out to be a surprisingly sneaky, cheeky adventure thriller from German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. In The Lives of Others, von Donnersmarck studied voyeurism in the tale of a lonely East German police captain who spends years spying on a bohemian playwright. The surveillance equipment is a lot more high-tech in The Tourist, as Interpol agents collaborate with Scotland Yard to keep tabs on the protagonists, but beyond the central plot is a larger story about who is watching and manipulating whom.
In a surveillance van on a Paris street, detectives are on their daily stakeout, watching beautiful Elise (Jolie) emerge from her apartment and stroll down to her favorite café. As they exchange data with a Scotland Yard Inspector (Paul Bettany), back in London, we learn that Elise was the woman left behind when her embezzler lover went underground with 744 million pounds in illegal assets. It's rumored that he's bought himself a new face, and the international authorities are tailing Elise, hoping she will lead them to him.
It's game on when Elise receives a note from her lover telling her to board the train for Venice and pick up a random stranger en route, to throw the bloodhounds off the scent. That stranger is Frank (Depp), a math teacher from Wisconsin on his first holiday alone after the death of his wife. Frank's photo is transmitted to every police headquarters on the continent before the couple even finishes dinner on the train. When Elise invites him to share her canal boat—and then her palatial hotel suite—the astonished Frank is reeled right in.
The complicated plot also involves a brutal, vindictive English mobster (Steven Berkoff), his fleet of Russian gunslingers and armies of Interpol agents (none of whom can shoot worth a damn). There are boat chases through the canals, a hairsbreadth escape across crumbling tile roofs high above the city and an opulent fancy-dress ball. It's a lot to keep track of, and I confess feeling a little cheated by the ending at first—until I worked out the final twist that made it all make sense. Viewers less slow-witted than me should get more of a kick out of it, especially if they connect the dots in a more timely manner.
It's easy to see what drew Depp to this role: he gets to play almost a spoof of his cool, swashbuckling persona, a nice-guy Midwesterner so unsophisticated, he lapses into halting Spanish when trying to speak to Italians, yet rises to every outrageous challenge with goofball perseverance. Of course he's fun to watch—he also received a Golden Globe nomination for the role. Only his tender moments with Jolie never quite ring true.
Why? The filmmakers were so busy making Jolie an icon of gorgeousness, they forgot to write a character for her to play. Elise is a cypher; behind the masque of make-up that she never, ever takes off (seriously, no woman goes to bed—alone—still wearing her false eyelashes), and her terminally chic wardrobe, there's no there there. She never once has an unguarded moment where we feel like she might be, you know, an actual human being. So what attracts Frank to her—besides the surface gloss, which is considerable—remains a mystery throughout most of the movie. As a result, their repartee feels a little flat and their spark never quite ignites.
This is a critical flaw in a movie that depends so much on star power. (That, and the loveliness of Venice, captured to glorious effect by cinematographer John Seale) The Tourist is one of those movies better appreciated in retrospect, after one has time to sort out the plot, but it should have felt a lot more urgent and engaging along the way.
Watch film trailer >>>★★1/2 (out of four)
With Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, and Paul Bettany. Written by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Christopher McQuarrie, and Julian Fellowes. Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. A Columbia Pictures release. Rated PG-13. 104 minutes.
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