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Entries in Tourist/The [2010] (1)

Saturday
Dec112010

The Tourist (2010)

Vanity Fare

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film The Tourist is a cross between Ocean’s 12 and Sex and the City 2—as co-written by Chris McQuarrie, who gave us The Usual Suspects.  On an intuitive level, that should tell you everything you need to know about this winking, wannabe crime thriller.  But because a single sentence doesn’t qualify as a review (outside of This is Spinal Tap), I guess I’ll dive deeper.

By the way, I’m going to spoil the hell out of this movie, so turn back now if you plan on catching it.

Some readers might find it annoying that I sometimes discuss the trailers and marketing campaigns for the movies I review.  In the case of The Tourist, it’s vital that I do so.  This is one of the rare films that I saw without having any knowledge of the plot, outside of the fact that the commercials told me Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie get wrapped up in some international conspiracy/murder/romance plot (the only reason I chose The Tourist over Narnia 3 this weekend is because I didn’t feel like wasting another two-and-a-half-hours on bad fantasy and then having to write about it; but now I feel like a dick for making assumptions, and must oblige myself to watch it eventually).

The point is that the trailers I half-paid attention to looked to be selling a very bland action movie where, once again, Jolie shoots at henchmen and toys with an emasculated would-be love interest (see also Wanted, Tomb Raider, Salt, Mr. & Mrs. Smith).

So imagine my confusion when The Tourist’s opening ten minutes unfolded like a modern-day Pink-Panther-meets-Police-Squad farce, with Jolie’s mysterious Elise Clifton-Ward having tea at a Paris café while being clumsily tracked and then pursued by a gang of French police working with Scotland Yard.  It had the look of a Bourne movie with the ham-handed antics of a director whose idea of a light spy comedy is more Austin Powers than Sneakers.

The cops are after Elise because she’s supposed to meet up with ex-lover/international fugitive/mobster accountant, Alexander Pearce.  In charge of the operation is The Yard’s Inspector John Acheson (Paul Bettany), whose mandate is to retrieve the more than a half-billion pounds in unpaid taxes Pearce owes to Britain—a case that has taken years to build and eight million pounds to finance.

Elise is instructed to find a stranger on a train leaving Paris and…you know what?  I’m not even sure what she was supposed to do with the stranger; especially in light of all the twisty, revelatory shenanigans that unfold in the next hundred-plus minutes.  Anyway, she picks Frank Tupelo (Depp), a math teacher from Madison, WI on his way to a quiet Venice vacation.

It’s here that The Tourist completely falls apart.  Sure, it stumbles around for almost another two hours not realizing that it’s dead—but Depp’s intro is the beginning and end of the movie.

Let me sidestep the plot for a second and explain why Depp should not have been cast in this movie.  Johnny Depp is an icon, a mega-star, a caliber of celebrity (formerly “actor”) who has made a career playing over-the-top freaks in Tim Burton films and a swashbuckling superhero in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.  In other words, he’s past the point in his career where he can play regular people—especially an ultra-average Wisconsin math teacher.  He sticks out too much, and his idea of “reserved everyman” comes off as having had his cappuccino spiked with Rohypnol.  In one respect, this obviousness makes him perfect for the part, but not in the way, I’m sure, that the filmmakers intended (more on that in a second).

Frank and Elise make small talk and then part ways after reaching Venice.  Of course, they meet again soon after, and Elise invites Frank to say in her luxury hotel suite; he spends the night on the couch.  The next morning, he’s visited by two hit men who work for vicious gangster Reginald Shaw (Steven Birkoff).  They believe Frank to be Alexander Pearce, who stole several billion dollars from Shaw.  Again, instead of this opening up into a tense, nail-biting action scene, we’re treated to antics, as Frank calls the front desk to complain about people shooting up his room—at which point he’s met with a “Silly Americans” smirk from the concierge.

The mistaken-identity plot drags on and on and on, as Frank is pursued by Scotland Yard and Shaw’s men over rooftops and down canals and through swanky galas.  Much of this pursuit, mind you, could have been cut short if either the French and British governments or Reginald Shaw had refused to hire flunkies straight out of the Benny Hill Police Academy.

The only authority figure worth a damn (kind of) is Acheson, but he’s handicapped by the idiots in his employ and a boss who just wants to forget about Pearce and enjoy his afternoon tea (the boss, incidentally, is played by Timothy Dalton, and I guess it’s supposed to be cute that a former James Bond is now the head of The Yard; but why are the filmmakers angling for “cute”?  I thought this was a thriller?).

The film’s climax sees Elise—who, it turns out, has been working for Scotland Yard the whole time—cornered by Shaw in Pearce’s old apartment.  He demands that she open his safe—which supposedly contains several billion dollars (was it created using Tardis technology?).  In walks Frank, who has just escaped from the police surveillance van parked across the street (a van in which Acheson and two cops sat three feet away from a handcuffed Frank—who undid his restraints with a pin and then silently got up, opened the door to the van and then ran away).

Frank convinces Shaw that he really is Alexander Pearce, in order to buy enough time to figure out a plan.  Long story short, Yard snipers take out everyone in the room except for Elise and Frank, who escape with the money and leave behind a check for 744,000,000 pounds, payable to the British government.

You see, Frank really was Alexander Pearce.  He’d spent twenty million pounds on facial reconstruction, dentistry, and a voice chip to completely change his identity.  It’s a great gag for a spy movie, but here is why it fails in The Tourist:

  1.  The twist should surprise no one, given the aforementioned Johnny Depp problem, as well as the fact that Christopher McQuarrie is billed as the second screenwriter.  The Usual Suspects put him on the map fifteen years ago, due to its brilliant story about a criminal mastermind who hides in plain sight during the film playing a bumbling stooge.
  2. The twist negates the point of the entire fucking movie because we’re left wondering why Frank didn’t just use his infinite wealth and connections to sneak back into his apartment and open the safe.  There’s probably some lame explanation about wanting to re-kindle his relationship with Elise, but in the age of texting and sexting, aren’t near-fatal speedboat chases a bit much?

Getting back to my original assessment, The Tourist unfolds not as a film, but rather an elaborate Mystery Party hosted by impossibly rich and attractive celebrities.  There’s not a speck of grit in this movie; everything is polished and sparkly; there are diamonds and lavish fabrics everywhere.  It’s as if Henckel von Donnersmarck made an infomercial for the top one percent of the world’s wealthiest people.  “What recession?” he asks, “Come to Venice and watch Angelina Jolie model for two hours!  Have some caviar!  Fuck the proles!”

I know that Depp and Jolie are capable of actually acting, which is why The Tourist is such an upsetting exercise; it’s also incredibly boring—I nodded off a few times during a 1:05pm screening; not a good sign.  Perhaps if von Donnersmarck and company had committed to either a gritty thriller or headed the other way into all-out farce, The Tourist might have had a chance.  As it stands, we have a movie where Johnny Depp plays Mr. Bean before turning on a dime into Keyser Soze.  Let’s just call this a multi-million-dollar hiccup on the way to Pirates 4, shall we?

Note: By “nodded off”, I don’t meant that I fell asleep during the movie.  Long stretches of The Tourist allowed my tired mind to think about other things, and in more than one instance I found myself snapping back from a daydream.  Had I felt I’d actually missed anything, this would have been a very different review.