In the past couple of days, I’ve seen a couple of films that stagger the imagination. Films with high-powered talent that left me reeling with shock and awe, thinking, “I can’t believe that this movie exists.” And not in a good way. One of them was How Do You Know, the new James L. Brooks romantic comedy, starring Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd and Jack Nicholson. It doesn’t open for another week, so I’ll hold my fire for now. The other is The Tourist, starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, which opens this weekend. (Also opening this week is The King’s Speech—by now I’m sure you already know that it’s an Oscar front-runner and highly recommended by critics across the board. For more on The King’s Speech, go to my piece in Maclean’s: Going up against Hitler with a stutter.)
The Tourist is directed by German filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who won the foreign-language film Oscar for the brilliant Stasi intrigue The Lives of Others (2006). It’s almost inconceivable how such an intelligent director could make such a mediocre, witless, deliberately dumb movie. And you can’t just say it’s because he got married to a misconceived project as a director-for-hire. The Tourist was von Donnersmarck’s baby. He brought it to producer Graham King and the director’s reputation helped lure Jolie and Depp. So he’s got no excuse.
How bad is it? Well, if there’s anything groundbreaking about The Tourist, one could say that it redefines the notion of guilty pleasure. You could buy a glossy magazine just to look at the ads, or you could see The Tourist. Its pleasures are twofold: gazing at luxurious images of Venice, and gazing at luxurious images of Angelina Jolie—who does not act so much as pose in a series of regal close-ups, in which her features are barely more mobile than those of the city itself. Don’t get me wrong. Angelina and Venice are to die for—breathtakingly beautiful, even if both may have had some work done. But I can’t remember that last time I saw a movie where the camera seemed so enslaved to a screen goddess, doting on her in one unflinching close-up after the other, letting her gazelle-like jawline find the perfect angle, fixing on those Sophia-Loren-sized smoky eyes. And everyone else in the frame seems to be doing the same thing, just gawking at her.
Did I mention Johnny Depp? Yeah, he’s in it, too. We love Johnny. But frankly, he’s looked better. And acted better. Not that he has much to do. I mean, Angelina’s got her work cut out for her, wearing the clothes and the jewelry and the infinite makeup, and being the object of so much adoration. He’s got that chopped-liver air about him. Maybe the Keith-Richards role modeling is taking its toll. Or maybe his ragged appearance is contrived for the role. Who knows? With Johnny, it’s hard to tell.
You don’t really want to know about the plot, except that there is one. Sort of. Angelina plays Elise Ward, an International Woman of Mystery who is being tailed by British agents and a big-time gangster. They’re trying to get to her paramour, Alexander Pearce, an International Man of Mystery who has stolen a fortune. He leaves her a divine little hand-written note in a cafe telling her to pick up a stranger on a train to Venice, someone of his approximate height and build. A decoy. She chooses Frank Tupelo (Depp), a math teacher from the Midwest. He presents himself as a simple tourist trying to mend his broken heart. Chase scenes ensue. Frank is hot for Elise, who toys with him. The plot seems to be the same kind of set up as in Knight and Day or Red, with an innocent civilian getting dragged into a dangerous cloak-and-dagger intrigue. With a much lazier plot. That’s because the main event in The Tourist is tourism. The backdrop is the foreground. This is a movie about buildings and boats and canals and hotel rooms. . . and Angelina. Her character, if one could call it that, is a female James Bond, whose only job is to strike a pose, smolder and let things happen around her. She’s good at it. But don’t go looking for any chemistry between her and Johnny. Playing straightman for a screen goddess is a thankless job, and he seems to be just going through the motions, waiting to split this Venetian pop stand and get back to the Caribbean.