The new caper comedy The Tourist has no reason to exist besides providing the audience an excuse to gawp at Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, and to a lesser extent the scenery of Paris and Venice. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, when done right. There are stretches of the film held aloft completely by the stars’ charisma and the fun of watching glamorous people in beautiful locations, but unfortunately the movie can’t sustain it, giving us the sad spectacle of a frothy thriller slowed down to half speed, occasionally diverting but mostly unengaging.
Jolie plays Elise Ward, a mysterious British woman who was once involved with a suave thief named Alexander Pearce, who stole hundreds of millions of dollars from a gangster named Shaw (Steven Berkoff) and is now being hunted by both the criminals he stole from and the financial crimes divisions of Scotland Yard, in the form of Paul Bettany’s Inspector Acheson.
After getting a letter from Pearce, Elise boards a train from Paris to meet him in Venice. On the train, she meets Frank Tupelo (Depp), a math teacher from Wisconsin who has the same general build as Pearce. In order to throw the authorities off her trail, she pretends Frank is Pearce so, in the confusion, she can slip past the gangsters and cops and escape with the real Pearce. Of course, Frank falls for Elise, and tries to win her for himself, bumbling his way into more trouble in the process.
Depp does his best approximation of a normal human being, although he is never truly believable as an “everyman.” Still, I did like the way he fumbled with an electronic cigarette, or how he spoke Spanish to all the Italian characters. But despite his bumbling (of which we could have used some more, frankly), he never seems like less than a movie star.
Jolie is quite charismatic as well, of course, but here she glides through the movie, inscrutable and remote, something to be admired from afar more than loved. As you can imagine, this sort of performance doesn’t lend itself well to chemistry with a costar. The two stars are impressive on their own, but outside of the fun sequence on the train when they meet, they never gel together as well as they could.
You can see how desperately the movie wants to be in the league of Charade or To Catch a Thief, wafer-thin caper comedies that exist largely because of, and succeed largely due to, their leads’ star quality. That sort of desperation can make a film become frantic and overly busy, and feeling like it’s trying too hard can be death for a movie like this. However, that doesn’t happen here. Instead, the movie feels like it’s barely there, as if the filmmakers decided that after hiring Depp and Jolie their jobs were done, with little regard to making the movie surrounding them entertaining. Just throw two movie stars together and let them smolder, and that should be sufficient.
The fact that it isn’t can’t be blamed on the stars, at least not completely. The pedestrian romance they were given to play, and the creakiness of the direction, had at least as much to do with it. The film was directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (try saying it; it’ll make you happy), the German director of The Lives of Others, a tense, searing film about life in East Germany under the Stasi. That film was terrific, but a movie like this needs a director who can keep things frothy and lively, but not so insubstantial that the film floats away completely. However, von Donnersmarck’s direction makes things clunkier than they need to be. The filmmakers are aiming for a sort of spy-movie fairy tale, with everything happening at balls and luxury hotels, and the characters remaining elegant and composed while zipping around the canals of Venice on speedboats, but the director couldn’t make things as light, but electric, as they needed to be.
The script is credited to the director, along with Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) and Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), though it was reportedly worked over for years by many different writers. But despite all this effort, the script feels curiously unfinished, with a noticeable lack of action, a rather unbelievable romance between the two leads and plenty of narrative problems (capped by a ludicrous and insulting final twist).
There were quite a few clever things in the movie, though, such as the mincing, barefoot chase Depp has along the rooftops of Venice, or the way the British government is less concerned about the crime Pierce committed than it is about the back taxes he owes on the money he stole (although I would have thought that stolen money would be tax free).
Despite its many problems, The Tourist is never difficult to sit through. It’s a relatively painless experience, one that doesn’t leave very many traces, good or bad. It’s leisurely to the point of ambivalence. Depp and Jolie are charming, but they can’t sustain the entire film, and the story around them, much like the audience, feels bored and disengaged.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.