It looked suspicious when Columbia managed to pull off an almost complete review blackout until opening day for Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Tourist. When the generally blistering reviews did appear, it seemed to be a case of “suspicions confirmed.” Is it really that bad? No, instead it’s that indifferent, which is somehow more distressing, especially considering the talent involved. Bad would at least indicate the possibility of some kind of failed effort. The Tourist shows little sign of any sort of effort at all.
Conceptually, The Tourist ought to have worked. Having Johnny Depp play Frank Tupelo, an American tourist on a train to Venice who becomes involved with mysterious femme fatale Elise Clifton-Ward (Angelina Jolie), seems like a natural. So do most of the story’s embellishments. Unbeknownst to Frank, Elise has been instructed to become involved with someone like him by her on-the-run boyfriend, the elusive Alexander Pierce (played by we’re never sure who—for reasons that become obvious). The idea being that Frank, who is roughly Pierce’s size and build, will throw off the British agents who are on Pierce’s trail. However, the British agents who are in pursuit of Pierce for back taxes on the several billion pounds he pinched from gangster Reginald Shaw (Steven Berkoff) are but a minor annoyance compared to Shaw himself. He—not surprisingly—wants more than money.
Now all that has the makings of a good Hitchcockian romantic thriller. At the very least, it ought to play out like a slick imitation of a Stanley Donen film, like Charade (1963). The sad fact is that it’s not in the same universe. It has one actual stylish sequence—the big ballroom scene, specifically Depp and Jolie’s dance—and a lot of pretty scenery. Beyond that? Well, there’s just not much there. Jolie is her typical “gaze upon my beauty” self, which is to say she is hot and she knows it and in her mind that’s quite enough. Depp seems almost as perplexed by how to play Frank as the character is by the situation in which he finds himself. Indeed, Depp is so toned down that he is almost not there.
The biggest problem is the screenplay by Donnersmarck, Christopher McQuarrie (Valkyrie) and the usually reliable Julian Fellowes (The Young Victoria). It errs in thinking that the plot is the most important thing in a movie of this kind. The upshot is a dearth of characterization, actual romance and witty banter for both the stars and the supporting cast. There is no discernible chemistry between Depp and Jolie, but the fact that they’ve been given so little to work with isn’t a help. Steven Berkoff’s Shaw is supposed to be a villain of almost James Bond proportions. If only. Paul Bettany fares somewhat better, but only because he decides to chew the scenery, which injects some badly needed life into the proceedings. It’s then left to Timothy Dalton to walk in at the end of the picture exuding savoir faire and contemptuously yank the movie out from beneath everyone in a display of genuine coolness.
I suppose the biggest shock for a lot of people lies in seeing the much-vaunted director of The Lives of Others (2006) fall flat on his face with his English-language debut. Looked at realistically, it’s not all that surprising, but then I never thought The Lives of Others was the masterpiece others did. However, it’s mostly a case of a miscast director. It’s clear early on that Donnersmarck has absolutely no feel for this kind of movie. This isn’t a film and it certainly isn’t cinema. It’s a movie, a bit of entertainment. It should feel weightless and effortless. Instead, it’s a dull slog of pretty people and images conveying nothing. Rated PG-13 for violence and brief strong language.