REVIEW: Espionage Caper The Tourist Offers Mystery and Glamour, Plus Depp and Jolie

Movieline Score: 9

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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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Comments

  • Feet of Courier says:

    ".5 points better than "Salt" and 3X better than "Inception"!", would have been a better header for this article.

  • weetiger3 says:

    Your review tells me this movie is everything I thought it would be. While I love the reference to Charade, just watching Jolie move in the trailer reminds me of a Hitchcock femme fatale. The whole thing seems like a great big holiday confection for adults and I can't wait to see it.

  • bob walker says:

    Depp has always seems to be a good actor in everything he does. He does not get typecast either, in what ever role he does. I may want to see this in the theatre instead of waiting on the movie on DVD or TV. Jolie is not bad either...

  • John M says:

    Go on, keep yourself up at nights figuring out the math of Inception ratings. Good way to pass the time.

  • Andy says:

    I think you should have compared this new movie with the original French movie it is based on ("Anthony Zimmer").
    I've only seen the trailer for the Jolie/Depp-version but judging from that it seems inferior to the original one in every aspect, particularly when it comes to the actors.
    Yvan Attal was amazing in the original and Sophie Marceau was a very convincing femme fatale in it as well.
    In contrast to the original actors Johnny Depp has zero charisma here and Jolie looks like an aging ice princess . How can a thirty-something female Hollywood star even look so old?
    The casting seems a bit inadequate to me: replacing a very attractive and energetic leading man (Attal) with an exhausted Johnny Depp and a seductive Sophie Marceau with a seemingly cold female character played by Angelina Jolie.
    Check out the original first if you have a chance.

  • anonymous1 says:

    A review that was a pleasure to read, thank you. And weetiger3 might want to consider a career in blurbs: "The whole thing seems like a great big holiday confection for adults and I can't wait to see it." Works for me!

  • Tessa says:

    I don't understand the level of animosity towards the movie and why the media has decided to ravage it by using a harsh, high standard when it was just aiming to be a B-grade spy thriller that harkened to an earlier era.
    It is sad that the media uses every opportunity to mock and degrade Jolie because of their ongoing agenda and corrupt bias that gossip created. She
    is very misunderstood as a person and it is sad that her movies have been
    critiqued more harshly because of it. The movie does not deserve such bad critical reception and I can't believe it is tanking like this.
    It was a B-grade movie with an A-list cast and crew. Not impressive or memorable but it was an okay or decent movie for its genre. I thought it was average but the reviewers are treating it as horrible and are using it as an outlet to attack Jolie. I also thought that Jolie played her part Elise well considering the character is supposed to be cool, aloof, and opaque. She
    carried it off well considering the weak dialogue and she saved the movie for me. Depp was more awkward in this role and I was embarrassed by him at times. He is a good actor but he needs to have strong material and a quirkiness
    to a role to pull it off. I also thought that he and Jolie sizzled together and their chemistry was just fine. The critics are being kind of ruthless towards this movie. It makes me sad that it will probably be flop. The two of them
    have had other critical and commercial successes but it drives me crazy that Jolie and Pitt movies have to overcome a bias and have to deal with a higher standard.

  • Tessa says:

    Show my first post, please.
    Okay film that is being evaluated too harshly. The insults and attacks against the film & actors from alot of critics is very outrageous and uncalled for.
    I thought they had good chemistry but were limited by the script. I thought
    J0lie carried off her underwritten role well and saved the movie for me.
    It was an okay and average film. Not spectactular or impressive but watchable and decent for its genre. I don't get why it is receiving such nasty
    reviews.

  • Tessa says:

    I was talking about the overall press attitude and critical ratings based on what I have read on metacritics and rottentomatoes.
    Thank god for this review which I thought was fair. I found it to be light-weight entertainment that was a good way to spend two hours. If you are fan and like B spy movies, you should be satisfied. Like I said, it was an average or okay movie, not designed to be impressive or unique.

  • Chris says:

    "I also thought that Jolie played her part Elise well considering the character is supposed to be cool, aloof, and opaque."
    Given that Jolie plays pretty much every character now as "cool, aloof, and opaque," that's not much of a stretch. She has like two modes: crazy, impassioned wild girl (Girl, Interrupted) and ice princess. Anything resembling real human idiosyncrasy and richness seems to be quite beyond her nowadays. She doesn't play people anymore, she just plays stock characters and stereotypes.
    And if any critic is guilty of massive bias, it's Zacharek herself, who seems constitutionally incapable of giving a Jolie movie a less-than-stellar review - unless Clint Eastwood directed it, that is. We can gather than Zacharek hates Clint just a bit more than she loves Angelina. Has any A-list star of Jolie's generation done less with her gifts and made fewer movies of significance than her? Yet to read Zacharek, you'd think Jolie's career was studded with masterpiece after masterpiece and one brilliant, flawless performance after another. Talk about lack of connection to reality. I bet if Black Swan for example had starred Angelina instead of Natalie, Zacharek would've selected it as the best movie of the year and none of her complaints about it would've gotten a passing mention in her review.

  • Patrick McEvoy-Halston says:

    KEY SPOILER ALERT
    (First consideration) She is really good and appropriate in this picture, Chris. Something about how Angelina refuses the viewer, and her spare personality, works to remind you to attend to everything else perfectly worthwhile in the picture. Elegance, a sure splendor of it -- it's hard to imagine anything making an appearance in the film that wasn't (as Stephanie says, tenderly and appreciatively) "considered" ... But I followed this by rewatching "Knight and Day" -- a movie I just can't deny as one of favorites from this year -- and I'm reminded why something in the TRULY "Wisconsin"-born (read: large-hearted, big-souled American) (once Depp reveals his true identity, we should wish him well but still be quite ready to leave him behind -- his human undeterminedness was fake: he's as furnished and complete as the beautiful hotels he for a glorious time inhabited), hammy, down-to-earthness, can ultimately trump every element of fragile stunning beauty some place like Venice has to offer, perhaps in the same way a single human life, perhaps even before its begat into something storied and interesting, can still trump the whole awesome complexity of the entire rest of the ecosphere: no, I'm sorry, whatever your -- albeit -- formidable luxury of experiences and details, whatever the extent of patience required to appreciate all that's in their tiniest sliver, there's no comparing even the sum of it to spending time along someone with sufficient soul to remainder you to backdrop. Where Stephanie really scores points with me in this lovely, faithful review, is that Americans should be able to appreciate this (kind of) film, all that it respects enough to quite-to-the-exact-precarious-point-of-distraction think about and love -- not just loud star vehicles -- and how many can? The film loses me, for its making its lesson by noticeably submitting the human -- nothing they "existed" made me really forget the kind of hotels (and trains, and such) they had been in. Great PEOPLE made those grand hotels, but more LIVING, vital presences should still readily backdrop them, and they didn't enough -- struck me as about near always-even (not quite, they surely existed more than the other human-types that "accompanied" them) -- for my preference. I COULD take my eyes of them, and though it opened things up, in retrospect, this isn't so much quite the thing I supposed it was on first consideration. Still a really good film, though.

  • Tracey Brown says:

    I feel validated! Saw this film yesterday and loved it, and I consider myself a cinema snob, to a certain extent. I decided to ignore the regular suspects' (critics) reviews, and had a most enjoyable time with my popcorn and Diet Coke. In fact, I loved it, and really happy to see this review. It is a throwback to those stylish '60s films, not really "Charade" and certainly not Audrey Hepburn. But stunning and loads of fun!

  • Donald says:

    I also loved this, for all the reasons Stephanie so eloquently describes in her review.
    I just find it sad that when we see two very good actors try something different and subtle (i.e. something not based on an amusement park ride or a Bourne-franchise-wannabe), the critics and masses deride the supposed "lack of chemistry." I guess we need lots of lame mugging, groping and who knows what-all-else... Thanks, Stephanie, for going to bat for this lovely, crisply directed and elegant film. Let's hope the dissenting opinion leads some more people to see it...

  • Trace says:

    ...I don't think style can overcome such a far-fetched plot. Just sayin'.

  • David Bilik says:

    Stephanie Z's review described my enjoyment of the Tourist when most other critics missed the fine humor and wit in the whole production. Brava!

  • Timelagged says:

    "I don't understand the level of animosity towards the movie and why the media has decided to ravage it by using a harsh, high standard when it was just aiming to be a B-grade spy thriller that harkened to an earlier era."
    I'm sorry, this movie failed badly for me, and I haven't read any other reviews or opinions. B grade spy thrillers are mostly far better than this. What a mess. Watching Angeline Jolie try to be old fashioned and sophisticated was painful, she looked like a puppet and showed about as much feeling, and Johhny Depp was just bizarre as a choice for this role. Mainly though the movie fails by doing nothing but repeating the worst cliches picked up from other movies rather than bearing even the slightest relation to life "Go ahead and kill 'the girl', but I want him alive".
    "The girl"? Who talks like that referring to a 40 year old woman, except people in movies, and usually in the 1940s?
    This movie looked like an imitation of a string of movie cliches, not a movie. Charade? Hardly.
    Stephanie is one of my favorite critics, I'm astonished she didn't pan this one.

  • Will-B says:

    Yeah, he must be another one of those stupid Nolan-sheep if he spends all his time doing complicated math like MULTIPLYING BY THREE just for things related to Inception.

  • You definitely outdid yourself this article.
    I am very impresses

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