'The Tourist': One Bad Trip
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
As much as a film reviewer might try to put himself or herself into the shoes of what he or she imagines to be the ordinary filmgoer, sometimes it can't be helped: Film reviewers are a different breed, and we process movies differently than average moviegoers do. This is particularly true when the film reviewer has seen a lot of other motion pictures and tends to automatically makes connections between them. But let me get to the point: This observation is by way of explaining why, around the time "The Tourist" became dead to me -- which was somewhere, frankly, between the 10- and 25-minute mark -- I found myself thinking, "I wonder if the box-office failure of "Duplicity" is part of the reason this movie's so bad?"
"Duplicity," some of you may recall, was a rather diabolically clever and highly complex romantic thriller starring Julia Roberts and Clive Owen that rather famously flopped at the box office in 2009. Was it because stars don't guarantee box office any more, or was the movie too complicated? Either way, that would spell bad news for a star-driven, twisty romantic thriller starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, you'd think. In addition, the production and distribution entity behind "The Tourist" is Columbia, whose head is rather well known for playing things pretty safe in the challenging-the-audience department. So, one could easily imagine that this picture -- which was, after all, directed by the highly acclaimed man behind "The Lives of Others," Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, and written in part by Christopher McQuarrie, who's also partially responsible for the clever "The Usual Suspects" -- might have started off as one thing and got so dumbed down in the executive "notes" that it became something wholly other, and rather awful. In any event, it's a bit of a shock to see this caliber of star power and big-budget production and location juice (the picture was lensed in Venice, hardly the cheapest place in the world to shoot a film) yield such dismal results.
The dumbing down starts at the very beginning, as Jolie's mystery woman Elise receives an enigmatic directive in a missive from a mystery man while dining at her favorite café. "Go to the Gare de Lyon," the message reads in part. Off she walks. "Gare de what?" asks an inspector in Scotland Yard who's in touch with the French cops who are tailing her. Hmm. A Scotland Yard detective, and he doesn't know the name of the most famous train station in the famous capital city of a directly neighboring country. All right, then. Once Jolie's standing under the station's schedule board, a voice-over: "Go to the Gare de Lyon." And in case you weren't paying attention, she's going to the Gare de Lyon.
Yes, that's what a dolt the movie takes you for, and it continues taking you for that dolt for the next hour and a half or so. Elise's instructions require her to get on a train to Venice and cozy up to a fellow of the same general build as her mystery man, the better to fool the fuzz. The fellow she picks on is the downbeat, slightly schlubby tourist of the title, one Frank Tupelo, played by Depp. And so the wrong-man intrigue begins: Frank falls for Elise; vicious killers led by vicious villain Steven Berkoff (he's back! Betcha missed the "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Rambo" baddie ... but don't admit that unless you want to date yourself.) think that Frank's the genuine mystery man, and they want the money they think he's got; and so on. I'm making it sound like more fun than it is, believe me. Depp and Jolie have no chemistry, and von Donnersmarck, who seems a bit on the humor-challenged side, has them conduct their dialogue exchanges as if they're both in some weird trance. Whereas the ordeal undergone by Cary Grant's character in "North by Northwest" taught him to step up to the plate and be a mensch, what Depp's character goes through here -- he's a widower, you see, and hence something of a sad sack -- might be meant to teach him to enjoy life. But wait! There are some limp chases and more twists in store, if you can call them that. I myself had the whole thing figured out a good 40 minutes before the finale, and as many of these kinds of films as I have indeed seen, I'm still generally terrible at getting ahead of a plot.
As for the talent, Depp does his always-solid level best to portray an ordinary guy, which can't come easy to him. But Jolie? Man, what happened to her? I don't just mean to her arms, which here are as scarily spindly as any you'd see in a Tim Burton animated movie, but to her talent. I seem to recall her having a genuine quality on-screen, once. Here she just walks around with her nose in the air and vocally channels Julie Andrews in "Darling Lili." Drop the accents and carb up, lady; you're starting to creep me out.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.