The Tourist is a movie that achieves a dreadful perfection. Everyone involved in it—not just the stars, Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, but also the director, the cinematographer, the score composer, the various writers and makeup artists, and possibly even the gaffer and the craft-service cooks—all of these people have conspired, all at once, to do their very worst work. The French and Italian accountants who conjured up the location tax breaks necessary to ease a budget reported to be in the vicinity of $100-million, and who thus enabled the picture to be made, have much to answer for as well.
Jolie plays a woman of mystery named Elise. We meet her in Paris, where she is under observation by a van full of French security operatives. In a tedious sequence that is both fittingly brief and yet much too long, we see her receiving a message at a sidewalk café from an equally mysterious man named Alexander Pearce (her onetime lover, it later turns out). The note tells her to board a train to Venice and while en route to pick out a passenger who “looks like me” and to sit with him on the trip. Those who unwisely choose to see the movie will learn that this plot point utterly scuttles the film’s already preposterous conclusion.
The man Elise selects is a vacationing school teacher named Frank Tupelo (Depp). Frank can’t believe his luck. Nor can we. While Elise, with her beige-on-beige designer ensembles and her heavy impasto of powder and paint, looks like an alien eminence from Planet Fashion, possibly on her way to an ’80s photo shoot, Frank is a lumpy schlub with a droopy tangle of hair that suggests Jack White at the end of a long day. Will these two fall in love? Next question.
In Venice, Elise takes Frank to her glittering six-star hotel, where they spend a chaste night together. In the morning, Elise is gone, and in her place is a gang of Russian thugs in search of the elusive Alexander. Oddly, the Russkis’ boss, a fellow named Ivan (Steven Berkoff), is actually British. Why should this be? Well, as someone limply explains, Ivan “surrounds himself with Russians.” Ah.
There follows an awkwardly-conceived chase sequence, with Elise piloting a boat through the canals of Venice. Since she is also towing behind her a second boat with Frank onboard, this episode lacks the sort of freewheeling zing we have every right to expect. The Russians, in hot pursuit, are convinced that Frank is actually Alexander—the man who ripped off a huge sum of money from the angry Ivan. A team of English security ops who are monitoring the action know better, but by this time we’ve lost our will to care. The story continues on to a fancy-dress ball, where one of the most ridiculous dance interludes in recent memory takes place. I’ll not go into it, or on any further.
More interesting than the movie itself, by far, is its backstory. Tom Cruise, Charlize Theron, and Sam Worthington were all at one time attached to this project, but all of them, presumably after getting a look at the script, bailed. Similar second thoughts were had by a number of directors, including the estimable Lasse Hallström. This left the field to the German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, best known for his first feature, the grimly engrossing Cold War drama, The Lives of Others, which won a best-foreign-film Oscar five years ago. Here, helming material that cries out for the continental esprit of a Hitchcock or a Stanley Donen, he comes up with results that are once again, but in a different way, grim.
Jolie and Depp have no chemistry whatsoever: They look as if they’ve just read the script, and they go about their business with the twinkling elan of two actors waiting for their checks to clear. Not that the script, in which Henckel von Donnersmarck also had a hand, offers them any alternative. The picture has exactly two funny lines in it; the rest of the dialogue is crushingly flat. At one point Depp asks, “What made Pearce think he could take on a guy like that?” And Jolie replies, “It’s just the way he is.” Elsewhere, Jolie actually utters the line, “I wish we’d met in another life, Frank.” Or another movie, for sure.
Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York.
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