Friday, December 10, 2010

The Tourist: First-class accommodations

The Tourist (2010) • View trailer for The Tourist
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence, mild sensuality and a hiccup of profanity
By Derrick Bang

Stars Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck – who won a well-deserved Academy Award for 2006’s merely terrific The Lives of Others – and a sharp, cosmopolitan script by von Donnersmarck, Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) and Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park, The Young Victoria).

Goodness, how could it miss?

It doesn’t.
Strangers on a train: Elise (Angelina Jolie) surprises Frank (Johnny Depp), a
complete stranger, when she sits across from him during a railway journey to
Venice. Although Frank is convinced she has made an odd mistake, in fact
Elise has chosen her new comparion with care ... and for reasons that are
about to become significantly dangerous.

The Tourist is an engaging throwback to sophisticated 1960s espionage romps that matched stunning women with bemused and often clueless men: deservedly treasured classics such as Charade (Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant) and Arabesque (Sophia Loren and Gregory Peck). Full disclosure forces me to acknowledge this as one of my favorite genres, so I approached The Tourist with high expectations and guarded concern: It ain’t easy to re-capture this sort of lightning in a bottle.

No worries, mate. The storyline is pure bonkers, to be sure, but the execution is a whole lotta fun.

Jolie makes a pluperfect femme fatale, although cut from a different (much more expensive) cloth than the sleeper agent she played in this past summer’s Salt. Her Elise Clifton-Ward is an ethereal sophisticate: the sort of woman accustomed to playing with her toys, particularly those that stand on two legs. Her expression is a heady brew of charming amusement and mildly smug superiority: a smoldering, come-hither glance that promises much but yields little.

At the same time, she’s open to novelty: Any man might have a chance, her gaze suggests, if he intrigues her sufficiently.

Depp, although playing as “ordinary” as we’ve seen him in years – his Frank Tupelo is a mild-mannered American math professor – is captivating in his mundaneness. His timid astonishment – this woman’s paying attention to me? – is pitch perfect, his worried, are-you-putting-me-on sideways glances to die for. And I lament the fate of theater patrons lacking acute hearing, because they’ll miss all of Depp’s nervous grumbles and worried frum-frahs. He can turn a squeaky “Hmmmm?” into the height of hilarity.

We know we’re in good hands right from the get-go, as James Newton Howard’s engaging score draws us into a stakeout of Elise by law enforcement agents in several countries: a long-running operation overseen by British investigator Acheson (Paul Bettany, appropriately brittle).

The details emerge slowly: Elise is the paramour of a notorious thief named Alexander Pearce, who disappeared awhile back. Pearce stole a boatload of money from a British gangster (Steven Berkoff, as Shaw) who surrounds himself with vicious Russian heavies. Shaw naturally wants his money back, and his ruthless reputation forced Pearce into hiding … which includes hiding from Elise. The British government, meanwhile, wants Pearce for the taxes (!) on the money he stole.

The opening sequence sets the tone for the entire film, with Newton Howard’s whimsical themes punctuating the action just as crisply as John Williams’ work in Catch Me If You Can. (Both scores, it should be mentioned, also hearken back to the lyrical, jazzy soundtracks that typified the aforementioned 1960s romantic espionage flicks.)

We can assume that Acheson has been watching Elise for months, but on this particular day, the long-dormant situation heats up: She receives a clandestine note, presumably from Pearce, with intriguing instructions. She’s to board a certain train bound for Venice, randomly select a stranger of approximately Pearce’s height and build, and then make everybody else believe that this poor schlub is Pearce. Once Acheson, Shaw and the respective forces of good and evil start chasing after this dupe, Elise will receive further instructions on how to re-unite with her lover.

Anybody still wondering which “poor schlub” she selects?

Frank, traveling alone to Venice to mend a broken heart – we learn this later, when Acheson investigates his background – can’t imagine why this stunning woman sits at his table in the train. Surprise and bewilderment yield to curiosity and then flickering desire in Depp’s eyes, all in a heartbeat; the subsequent small talk is the stuff of swooning Hollywood classics. Elise’s patient, droll explanation about how a man should ask a woman to dinner – and Frank’s efforts to keep up – are enchanting.

Indeed, this film is filled with delightful small scenes and arch dialogue. Another good encounter comes when Acheson is dressed down by his boss, Chief Inspector Jones (Timothy Dalton), who resents the funds and resources being wasted on this long-gestating wild goose chase, and orders his underling to abandon the hunt. Dalton’s waspish disapproval is precisely modulated for maximum put-down effect; if Acheson fails to wince, it’s only because – as played by Bettany, with equal precision – he’s too arrogant to take the lecture seriously.

We shouldn’t be surprised by the degree to which such one-on-one exchanges engage us; The Lives of Others was filled with seemingly “casual” encounters that were layered with pregnant meaning and double entendres. Von Donnersmarck is an actor’s director, and when he has a top-flight cast to work with … well, we see the results unfold here, scene by scene.

Such accolades aside, the twisty narrative eventually gets overly complicated. One third-act, eyebrow-raising “reveal” goes too far, because it forces us to question previous behavior that suddenly makes less sense (if no sense at all). Although most of the broad strokes are sufficiently explained by the denouement, a few interior details remain rather hazy. One must agree to board the train with Elise and Frank and then simply accept whatever the subsequent ride delivers.

The Venetian location is well used, from the jaw-droppingly stunning Daniele Hotel – where Frank experiences an unexpected “overnighter” with Elise – to the canals, bridges and tight alleyways employed during a rather unusual chase sequence.

The supporting cast includes Igor Jijikine, well remembered as one of Harrison Ford’s brutish opponents in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, turning up here as one of Shaw’s goons. And every so often, Rufus Sewell pops up as … naah, that would be telling.

Although laden with some of the same malevolent atmosphere that made The Lives of Others so compelling, The Tourist is pure fluff; it’s difficult to get completely worried about poor Frank, even when he’s forced to flee Shaw’s thugs by crossing terra-cotta rooftops clad only in his pajamas. This is Espionage Lite: well suited to the holiday season and populated by a roster of stars and character actors at the top of their game.

We can be surprised that von Donnersmarck has moved from docudrama-style tension to such gentler fare, but hey: That’s the mark of a truly talented director … one who adapts capably to different genres. And when the results are this charming, what’s not to like?

On top of which, Newton Howard’s soundtrack just topped my must-have list…

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