The Tourist

Until I read Manohla Dargis’s snarky review of The Tourist in the Times, I had no plans to see the picture, but when I saw that the Orpheum Theatre would be showing it, a block away, at ten o’clock in the morning, I thought, why not? Why not give Ms Dargis a chance to be right for a change — to write a review that I could agree with. The tedium of sitting through a mediocre movie would be more than made up for by the world-historical excitement of seeing the world through a pair of eyes that long ago struck me as overdue for the attentions of an optician. But it was not to be. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s second feature film turned out to be huge fun, and once again I was left wondering why the Times keeps assigning movies that a ten year-old could predict she won’t like to Ms Dargis for review. That’s what bugs me. It isn’t that I never agree with her; never agreeing with her is useful and reliable. To be a little less snarky myself, I was encouraged to see The Tourist because Ms Dargis didn’t like it particularly. What bugs me, though, is that they make her sit through so many unsympathetic movies, and to what end?

The Tourist is a caper film, so I can’t say very much about its plot. It belongs to that sub-genre of caper films that I label “gambit,” in recognition of the very entertaining film of that name. The elusive Elise Ward is being followed through Paris by Scotland Yard, in hopes that she will lead the law (represented by Paul Bettany) to Alexander Pierce, a shadowy banker who is wanted by the British government for a staggering amount of back taxes. He’s wanted by a thug named Shaw (Steven Berkoff) for having stolen the even more staggering taxable sum. At the beginning, Elise is instructed by Alex to take the next train to Venice and to pick up (and make a decoy of) any guy who is more or less his size and build. So that’s what she does, more or less silently but with great panache. The measure of the director’s sense of cinematic humor can be taken when, pausing at the top of a Métro staircase, Elise consults her wristwatch and then confers a pitying smile upon her pursuers. With all the the nonchalance in the world, she descends the empty flight of stairs, but before the lieutenants can reach it a horde of exiting passengers blocks their passage as if on cue. It’s impossibly droll.

(Another instance: assault rifles are fired from a great distance. Nothing seems to happen to the targets, but suddenly the windowpanes turn to snow and three men drop to the ground, removed from the action with a dispatch that undercuts the idea that they were ever as dangerous as they seemed; Mr Henckel von Donnersmarck wants us to know that he would never dream of boring us with yet another gunfight.)

I’ve never been a fan of Angelina Jolie; I’ve seen only one or two of her pictures. But I’m a fan of her performance in The Tourist. She shakes up one part Rita Hayworth, one part Ava Gardner, two parts Christina Hendricks, and pours out the results in a low purring voice that I couldn’t get enough of. She eats up the scenery with a gusto that suggests compensation for all the real food that her diet does not permit, but her relish is brilliantly disguised as understatement. It’s as though Elise has been blasted by a vision, an actual experience of the concentrated glamour that the grand fashion models merely catalyze. Elise has been transformed, and you guess that life for her can only be a disappointment from now on — now that she has resolved to put Alexander Pierce behind her. As the hick whom she decides to exploit on the train tells her, she is the least down-to-earth of people. And yet, as if to make a little joke of her godhead, the director divides our attention between the glory of Angelina Jolie and the roach-like ubiquity of the male gaze that she excites. What a ratty little species we men are! But how she makes us ache to hear one true thing from those resplendent lips.

Johnny Depp, as the hick, plays a regular guy for a change — but of course he doesn’t, not really. Every regular-guy tic is calibrated with precision, and meant to be noticed as such. He gives us Jack Sparrow for grown-ups; he plays his part as if it were the gambit. Mr Bettany makes the perfect foil. In Public Enemy, the manic gangster played by Mr Depp was pursued by Christian Bale’s impersonation of an automaton. Here, the polarity is reversed. Mr Bettany is consumed by the righteous need to nail Alexander Pierce, no matter what the cost (and even though his superior, played by Timothy Dalton, has pulled the plug on the too-expensive investigation). You’re in no doubt that Inspector Acheson would eat one of his limbs if it would bag the renegade banker. Johnny Depp, meanwhile, is relaxed and bemused, at least when he’s not being shot at. As well he should be.

As for Venice, it has never looked more gloriously meretricious, and I do mean this as a compliment. Venice has been abused by a lot of movies, but this one treats it very sweetly. Naturally, there has to be a vaporetto chase in a canal at some point, but this one is not long and it has a few interesting wrinkles. The Hotel Danieli is made to look preposterous. There are no pigeons, and no churchbells. There is no attempt to experience Venice. It is seen as it has always wanted to be seen by outsiders: as a gigantic set. And sets, rather than bits of real Venice, are what we get for the most part. And why not have it serve as the set for two of American cinema’s most sacred monsters? The Tourist is set in a tourist’s idea of Venice. It’s perfect.

No more can be told you until you have seen The Tourist for yourself — which we do not encourage you to rush out and do right now, as that would not be cool. The movie unaccountably reminded Manohla Dargis of Hitchcock (a comparison that’s never flattering to anyone), but to me it was James Bond without the sadism and the self-importance. And the ending was happy to a degree unknown in Ian Fleming’s fantasies. (December 2010)

One Response to “Moviegoing:
The Tourist

  1. Ellen Moody says:

    Thank you. I’ll tell Izzy about this and maybe we’ll go see it. Ellen