Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie both seem to have approached “The Tourist” with the same intent, and there are stretches of the film that are pure tactile pleasure as a result of the inherent energy that exists between two smart and pretty movie stars with their charisma turned up to “high.”
And make no mistake… “The Tourist” exists solely as a vehicle for an audience to spend a few hours staring at movie stars. As a film, it’s not “about” anything. There’s no depth, no subtext, no greater significance. It is a piffle, a trifle, a souffle. For a film like this to work at all, it needs to be lighter than air, pure candy, and there are absolutely moments where “The Tourist” gets all of that right, where everything aligns, and in those moments, it is a reminder of why that sort of thing is enjoyable in the first place.
Unfortunately, the film can’t sustain that feeling for the full running time, and all those pesky plot mechanics keep getting in the way. The film is about a woman, Elise Ward (Angelina Jolie), who is being watched carefully by the Financial Crimes division of England’s government. Why? She was the lover of a man named Alexander Pearce, a con artist who vanished with hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s been two years, and they’ve been watching her, waiting for the moment he emerges to contact her so they can swoop in and arrest him. Paul Bettany plays Inspector Acheson, the man in charge of the case, and he’s obsessed with it, and with Elise Ward as well.
When the moment finally arrives, and Pearce makes contact, it’s via a letter. He tells Elise take a certain train at a certain time and find a stranger there with Pearce’s basic height and build. She is to pretend that person is him, and then use the confusion that arises as a smoke screen to get away and go meet the real Pearce. She follows his instructions, and on the train, she encounters Frank Tupelo (Johnny Deppp), and from the moment they meet, there’s a playful back and forth that makes the plan a pleasure for Elise. She enjoys teasing this oddball math teacher from Wisconsin who is traveling Venice in an effort to forget the woman who left him, and he is absolutely willing to let himself be teased by this elegant bundle of woman that just drops into his life.
Jolie is cast perfectly, and it doesn’t surprise me that the project really started with her pushing for it. She is exquisite in the film, polished and stunning and immaculately styled in each scene. She is well aware of the value of being Jessica Rabbit in this film, and the clothes she wears throughout seem to accentuate each curve, each wiggle and jiggle. It’s very savvy and self-aware movie-star work, and because her character is rich and hyper-aware of how she looks and what effect it has on people, it’s perfectly in-line with what we would expect of the character.
The thing about Depp is that I don’t buy him as “the typical man.” He is precisely atypical, which is what people are drawn to in his work. In the films where he’s tried this sort of role before, like “Nick Of Time,” it doesn’t really work. The smartest choice they make in “The Tourist” is allowing him to inject little bits of humor into the otherwise blank character, but even as I’m watching Depp fumble about with an electronic cigarette, I can’t help but think about William Goldman’s amazing book Adventures In The Screen Trade, where he talks about writing movies for movie stars. He was the first person to ever make me question what I was watching in certain films, and what motivations lay behind the choices I saw onscreen. Everything we see Depp do in this film feels like the result of notes sessions. You can almost hear Depp explaining to one of the many credited writers what an electronic cigarette is and how funny they could be, or suggesting this bit of business or that piece of wardrobe.
For all of the charisma on display, the movie stars ultimately seem to be more in love with themselves than with each other, and it’s that hyper self-awareness that could easily turn off some viewers. Since the story, such as it is, offers no surprise or narrative innovation, it’s all about the pretty locations and the pretty people, and your patience with the film will depend largely on how much that appeals to you. I liked many of the tiny touches, and even the supporting cast gets the occasional beat to do something fun, but there’s no way around the threadbare script, which is a shock considering the names that are on it. Christopher McQuarrie. Julian Fellowes. And, yes, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who stands revealed here as the Hollywood-hungry filmmaker he truly is. I know that everyone flipped out for “The Lives of Others,” the German film he directed, and it’s handsomely made, no doubt about it. But it was, at heart, a very slick piece of work, and it comes as no surprise at all that he is obviously a big fan of the classic era of Hollywood. This film uses location work for much of its visual impact, but there are some strange stylized soundstage-bound moments that feel like a nod to the films like “Charade” and “Gambit” and “To Catch A Thief” that were obviously the primary influence on this movie. The pacing of the film is uneven because it seems like von Donnersmarck is more interested in the individual set pieces rather than any sort of overall flow for the film.
For a movie with almost no narrative twists, there’s one towards the end that is just staggering in its stupidity, a decision that invalidates every single character beat we’ve seen for a character up to that point. It is a dishonest decision, made only to give the film a twist, and not because it fits with what has come before or because it adds anything substantive to what we’re watching. It is a band-aid on a narrative issue, and it is insulting. I don’t take anything in the storyline seriously, and certainly you can throw arbitrary twists at an audience in a way that is a wink and that they’ll enjoy, but when you reach for one like this, you have to consider how it affects everything that has come before it. In this case, it feels like the final admission that the film just doesn’t care.
And faced with that? I don’t either.
“The Tourist” opens everywhere tomorrow.