REVIEW: Espionage Caper The Tourist Offers Mystery and Glamour, Plus Depp and Jolie
That's for her to know and us to find out, but not before more secretive official types, like an ultra-efficient Paul Bettany and his older-and-smarter boss, Timothy Dalton -- as well as Rufus Sewell, as a gorgeously dressed mystery interloper, and Steven Berkoff, as a multizillionaire thug -- enter the picture. And if I've dwelt too obsessively on some of the early details of The Tourist, it's only because I'm still drinking them in: The movie is delicious, sensual and light in a way that mainstream entertainments almost never are these days.
Which means, of course, it's sure to tank, at least in the United States. The studio behind The Tourist, Columbia, arranged only a rather small, last-minute critic's screening. They don't seem to know how to market this picture, which means only that they can't square it with audience expectations, whatever the hell those are. What's more, the picture churned through several stars and directors, Sam Worthington, Tom Cruise and Charlize Theron among the former and Lasse Hallström and Bharat Nalluri among the latter. Everyone wants to be the first to predict that a troubled production is going to be bad -- why bother even to see it first?
But movies are bizarre, complex little organisms, and even troubled productions can sometimes right themselves. The very oddness of The Tourist in the contemporary movie landscape is what makes it special. The director is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose last (and first) movie was the extraordinary 2006 pre-German reunification drama The Lives of Others. The Tourist is, admittedly, a whole different kettle of sardines. But to anyone who might wonder why a filmmaker capable of making an intimate, exquisitely made picture like that one would want to segue straight into a Hollywood blockbuster, the only reasonable answer is, Why not? The chance to work with big stars, to shoot in two of the world's most breathtaking cities, to mount extravagant set pieces with lots of extras, to do crane shots and speedboat chases and, yes, even one restrained, underplayed explosion: Not all filmmakers yearn to do these things, but then again, so few human beings even get the opportunity to work on such a grand scale.
Von Donnersmarck has used his considerable powers for good, not evil. He worked on the script with Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) and Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park); it's based on Jérôme Salle's 2005 French thriller Anthony Zimmer. And even if you're not that surprised by the story's surprise twist, there's plenty to enjoy along the road: The way cinematographer John Seale (the eye behind big-time prestige pictures like The English Patient and Cold Mountain) captures, in burnished visual shorthand, the fragile, sun-baked beauty of Venice, complete with Canaletto clouds drifting through the sky; the way James Newton Howard's swirly-wallpaper score at one point echoes the clattery, percussive heartbeat of Henry Mancini's main theme for Charade.
And what about the movie's stars? The truth is that what passes between them isn't traditional romantic chemistry -- it's more like a friendly accord struck, with great precision and planning, between two great nations. Jolie's an icy presence here, but that's intentional: She's a caryatid bearing weighty secrets, as well as the occasional cashmere capelet, on her shoulders. Depp's character is warmer and sexier by design. With her injection-molded clavicle and dulcet GPS voice, Jolie is like a cyborg built to exacting specifications; Depp is her designated human.
That's part of the movie's joke, and part of what makes it fun. Elise is the inscrutable dream girl, the woman you think you ought to want but who really scares the hell out of you. Frank is the bumbling, slightly rumpled American who thanks Italian hotel clerks in Spanish -- but, charmingly, he's not the least bit afraid of Elise. He pursues her as if she were the pig-tailed girl next door, refusing to disappear when she tries to send him packing. She may be terrifying, but he's a terrier, and you know who's going to win in that game.
Even so, it would be a mistake to demand textbook character development from a movie like The Tourist. This is a movie where style rules the day. You can see it even in the way Elise checks the time: She nudges the wrist opening of her long glove just enough to glimpse the face of her tiny tank watch, which she wears on the inside of her wrist instead of out front. In The Tourist, no one but the suits ever barks into a cell phone. Depp's character doesn't immediately Tweet to his friends that he's just met the hottest woman ever, Penthouse Forum-style, on a Venice-bound train. In that respect, The Tourist is a fantasy, and more's the pity. The private details of Frank's and Elise's lives are kept, until the movie's end, quite private. If Elise and Frank are opaque to each other, they're opaque for a reason, as, sadly, lovers sometimes are. (Come to think of it, this picture has more in common with The Lives of Others than you might expect.)
But when Elise and Frank's final reckoning rolls around, The Tourist asks the same question that Preston Sturges and other directors of golden-era romantic comedies used to ask: How do you know who's right for you? And can that person survive your cruelty? Elise and Frank put each other through the paces in The Tourist and barely live to tell the tale -- yet they come out on the other side looking great. To wear a battle scar as if it were a dinner jacket: That's something the movies no longer show us how to do. But The Tourist, a stranger in its own landscape, still believes in the importance of dressing for dinner.
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