The Tourist is a tough movie to pin down. You’ve got a great cast, led by Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp and Paul Bettany, a superstar director in The Lives of Others Oscar winner Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, a beautiful lineup of foreign locations, Angelina Jolie (yes, she gets two mentions) and yet something seems… off. Seeing it all play out, the action just doesn’t add up.
That’s partially the point, but the endgame payoff doesn’t deliver quite as strongly as it could.
We learn right off the bat that Elise Ward (Jolie) is a person of interest to the authorities in the money crimes division of INTERPOL, and one driven-to-the-point-of-recklessness detective in particular, Inspector John Acheson (Bettany). This stems from her connection to Alexander Pearce, a mysterious figure who possesses a large sum of stolen money along with the enmity of some ugly bad guys who want it back. In the middle of all this is Frank Tupelo (Depp), an unassuming schoolteacher and widower from Wisconsin who is on a solo holiday in Europe. Fittingly enough, Frank and Elise cross paths on a train traveling through the French countryside and it’s not long before our American visitor is drawn into a shadowy world of danger and intrigue.
The Tourist feels like a film noir in broad daylight, maybe with a touch of Hitchcock on one of his more playful days. You’ve got your case of mistaken identity – Elise is showing off Frank to her various tails because of his resemblance to the absent Mr. Pearce – your femme fatale, your gang of square-jawed scoundrels (many of them gun-toting Russians, to boot), your obligatory chase scenes, a crooked cop, a dazzling high society ball… all of it playing in contrast to the sun-baked city of Venice, where much of the action unfolds.
Donnersmarck, with the help of talented cinematographer John Seale, captures it all just so, with sweeping shots of the European landscape and a gaze that tends to linger on all that is beautiful, including Jolie herself. There is an impulse based on the trailers to look at The Tourist as a gender-reversed companion to another 2010 release, Knight & Day. Donnersmarck and Seale steer things in a different direction, delivering something that is better classified as a light suspense thriller.
Depp’s is the standout performance. Here you have someone who very nearly embodies the concept of “cool” in his everyday life stepping into the role of… well… a loser. Frank isn’t a bad guy, he’s just meek. His shoulder-length hair is scraggly and poorly coiffed. His tie – when he wears one – sits loose and askew. He wears two-piece striped pajamas. He’s clearly out of shape and he has a haggard expression on his face at all times. Depp plays the role perfectly. It’s all in the eyes; his typically mumbling delivery is in full effect, but the eyes reveal a shy hesitation in everything he does until the film’s final act.
Jolie is there – she’s damn hard to miss, with every head on screen and off turning in her direction whenever she enters the frame – but she is little more than that. The story demands that her character remain mysterious almost until the end, and it works to her disadvantage on the performance end. Jolie is plenty talented but she’s just not given much to do. It’s a similar situation with Bettany, who does fine as a fairly one-dimensional INTERPOL inspector, but little more than that. Depp’s performance ends up feeling the most genuine, which becomes a great joke after the movie is revealed in its entirety.
That’s really where The Tourist falls apart. There’s so much misdirection going on in the narrative that the characters are never allowed to fully establish themselves. The result is an abundance of melodrama, the sort that feels dated now when we watch the works of film pioneers like Howard Hawks. What we’re left with is a fun yarn that lacks enough slack to leave any kind of lasting impression. The Tourist is the sort of adventure you’ll find yourself enjoying for two hours and then struggling immediately afterward to piece back together in your head. Escapism defined, for better and for worse.