Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, why? Ach du lieber Gott, warum? After the thing of beauty that was The Lives of Others (2006), a stately, serene meditation on love, art, and surveillance in Cold War-era East Germany, why did you accept the mission to direct a hacky slab of Hollywood bologna like The Tourist (Sony Pictures)? For a good half of this movie, I tried to convince myself you knew what you were doing, that you were pulling some sort of Douglas Sirk move: a European’s riff on the genre tropes of mainstream American cinema. Any second now, you would surely take this garden-variety international spy romp to some unexpectedly postmodern place. Until you didn’t, and the last hour of the movie foundered in a morass of unearned epiphanies, improbable chase scenes, and the kind of enraging last-minute plot twists that abruptly rob the foregoing film of any and all possible meaning.
I doubt it will be possible to express the full force of my annoyance at The Tourist without at least one optional mouse-over spoiler, but first, the setup. Angelina Jolie is Elise Clifton-Ward, an Englishwoman of mystery (cop? spy? con artist?) who boards a train to Venice after receiving an enigmatic summons while sitting in a Paris cafe. On the train, she meets and inconclusively flirts with an American math teacher on holiday, Frank Tupelo (Johnny Depp), whom she may or may not be setting up as the fall guy for the team of Interpol agents and Scotland Yard detectives who are hot on her trail. Once they arrive in Venice, Elise invites the scruffy, hapless Frank to be her guest in a sumptuous suite at a historic luxury hotel. (Put your mouse here for an optional spoiler:
Over the next few days, the ever-poised Elise and the ever-confused Frank dash around Venice, pursued by Russian thugs in the employ of a sociopathic English gangster (Steven Berkoff) and placed under constant surveillance by a Scotland Yard investigator (Paul Bettany). What all these people want from them—as well as the identity and intentions of the man who summoned Elise to Italy—remains obscure until the movie’s final minutes (and, at least for this viewer, beyond). But it’s not so much the nonsensical nature of the plot that rankles; it’s the movie’s wrongheaded approach to the material.
Basically this movie is an excuse for two movie stars (and, if we’re being honest, the director and crew) to hang out in a glamorous European location, chasing a Hitchcockian MacGuffin. It ought to be a glitzy, silly spoof of the kind of old-fashioned movie in which such things actually happened. Instead, The Tourist takes its clichés straight up. I kept waiting for the absurdity of Jolie’s character—an über-competent operative who can traverse Europe with only a gold clutch for luggage without ever getting a smudge on her white couture frock—to be punctured with some sort of self-deprecating joke. Surely Depp would walk in on her by mistake in the hotel and find her in curlers and a cold-cream face mask, watching the Eurovision contest on TV? But no, Elise really is model-beautiful and irreproachably cool at all times. Who could fall in love with such a perfect bore?
Though she’s given virtually nothing to do but sashay down train platforms in designer outfits, I will say that I enjoy how much Angelina Jolie enjoys being a movie star. In many scenes—especially a chase in which she expertly pilots a motorboat through the canals of Venice—Jolie resembles Sophia Loren and carries herself with a similar air of feline self-satisfaction. But von Donnersmarck seems gobsmacked by his leading lady’s beauty; he can get no distance on it, and what could have been an affectionate sendup of Jolie’s outsized off-screen persona instead becomes a film-length fashion shoot. As for Depp, his character makes so little sense that he can hardly be blamed for blinking his way through the movie with an expression of blank-faced puzzlement that recalls Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice-presidential debate.
If you want to know the plot twist that provides this movie’s final, audience-insulting indignity, place your mouse here: . Go ahead and do it; you’re not really going to see The Tourist, are you?