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The Tourist

December 11, 2010

The Tourist

Some cinematic empty calories — Michael Bay’s movies come quickest to mind here — are like McDonald’s. They’re crude, unrefined, and lacking in sustenance, but they’re great fun because they’re aimed squarely at our ids and they trigger all the right brainstem reactions our ancestors evolved. And some cinematic empty calories are like Florian Henckel Von Donnersmark’s The Tourist: fine Swiss chocolate, French wine, or Italian cheese. They aren’t really a lot better for you in the long run, but they engage us at the opposite end of the spectrum of human experience: that of beauty, luxury, and elegance.

Elise Clifton-Ward (Angelina Jolie) is beautiful, luxurious, and elegant. She’s also being followed by Scotland Yard via the Parisian police because of her ties to Alexander Pearce, who’s on the hook for three quarters of a billion pounds in back taxes. Inspector John Acheson (Paul Bettany) has already spent eight million tracking her, which is beginning to exhaust the patience of his boss, Chief Inspector Jones (Timothy Dalton).

But a break comes in the case; Elise receives a message from Pearce, telling her to board the 8:22 train from Paris to Venice, find a dupe who vaguely resembles him, and convince the police to follow that man. She picks out Frank Tupelo (Johnny Depp) — a math teacher from a community college in Madison, Wisconsin — and indeed inspector Acheson takes the bait at first. But by the time they reach Venice he realizes the plot and calls off the waiting Venetian police.

Unfortunately, word doesn’t get to Reginald Shaw (Steven Berkoff), a Russophile gangster from whom Pearce stole over two billion dollars. He believes that Frank really is Pearce, and sends his muscle in to retrieve it.

What follows is a pretty routine Euro-crime exercise. Elise is even kind enough to tell us as much, when she notices Frank’s choice of books: “You read spy novels; You’re in Europe; I’m a mysterious, beautiful woman on a train; You tell me my story.” But a well-made, run-of-the-mill Euro-crime movie is still as much of a joy to watch as a mysterious, beautiful woman.

Venice is — of course — gorgeous, both in the wide overhead establishing shots and in the chases through the high, narrow streets. The score is clean and tight, shot through with tick-tock hints of the clockwork precision with which this sort of movie is made. And Jolie slips into this world as effortlessly as everyone knew she would.

If there’s a weak point, it’s Depp’s performance. Frank has to be awkward and tragically unhip. And he’s written to be just that, from his hesitant, questioning manner to his preposterous electronic cigarette. As much as I hate to admit it, a community college math teacher is pretty much exactly the background the character needs. But Depp just cannot turn off his hip side to make himself believable in this role. At best we see a suave, worldly man play-acting as a rube. Depp should watching Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby to see how it’s done.

Overall, though, the movie does click all the right pieces into all the right places, and it’s perfectly satisfying by the time the credits roll. There are chases and glamor and humor and romance. There’s even an obligatory surprise twist, although a real fan of the genre will see it coming a long way off. If you’re a big enough fan, you can probably see it already — and you’re already cracking a wry smile of appreciation.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel test: fail.

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