Like this year’s “Salt” and “The Ghost Writer” before it, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck‘s “The Tourist” is a typical genre thriller on paper, but is so impeccably acted and directed, that it becomes transcendent. More than a cheap, fluffy globe-trotter, “The Tourist” is possessed of an ineffable, sedate humanity (not to mention sense of humor) that is typically lacking in a lot of modern Hollywood thrillers. Sure, the film’s stock in trade rests largely on ogling beautiful people, wearing beautiful outfits, resting comfortably in beautiful European locations, living an impossibly moneyed lifestyle, but “The Tourist” is no mere orgy of fetishistic yuppie porn. It’s actually a classy affair that von Donnersmarck and his co-screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie and Julian Fellowes (all three Academy-Award winners) have infused with an adult sensibility and sense of humor. It’s a thriller, like the films of the late great Claude Chabrol, that seems to be aimed at grown-ups rather than mayhem-hungry adolescents. But, unlike Chabrol, is light and effervescent, and is peppered throughout by cute deadpan funny moments that almost sail below the radar.
A beautiful, mysterious woman named Elise (Angelina Jolie) is seen in an expensive gown, floating down the streets of Paris. She is being watched from Scotland Yard, but a hard-nosed cop (Paul Bettany). The cops are hoping that she’ll subtly reveal the location of her unseen supercriminal boyfriend. Also on her tail, looking for the supercriminal, is a dangerous English gangster (Steven Berkoff), who is one of those mob boss-types who strangles minions on a whim. There is also a mysterious Englishan floating about the margins. Jhe’s played by Rufus Sewell, so we know he has something important to do in this story. To throw off her clever pursuers, Elsie boards a train and befriends a mousy math teacher named Frank Tupelo (Johnny Depp) in order to hide in the safety of a couple, and perhaps make her pursuers think that he is the supercriminal. She doesn’t tel him that, though. Depp, like any of us would be, is flabbergasted that a woman who looks like Angelina Jolie is paying any attention to him at all.
Jolie knows exactly how to play a role like this. She is a smart actress, and her intelligence shines through the vamp act that she so gleefully bites into. Depp, whom you would expect to be the cosmopolitan European charmer, offers an unexpected against-type performance as a nebbish who finds himself in over his head. This structure is classic Hitchcock, and mental comparisons to Cary Grant and Grace Kelly are inevitable.
Of course, the train meeting between Depp and Jolie only leads to ritzy hotels, mistaken identities, and scenes where Depp has to race across Venetian rooftops in his pajamas, while gangsters and/or cops are hot on his tail. There’s also a really cute scene where Frank, seeing Elise in a gorgeous evening gown, can’t help but utter an obscenity. “You look ravenous tonight,” he sputters. “You mean ravishing” she playfully corrects him.
Von Donnersmarck’s strength seems to be his restraint. He allows the prettiness of the surroundings to speak for themselves. He allows James Newton Howard’s delightfully old-fashioned score dictate a lot of the necessary moods; when we enter a Venetian hotel for the first time, the camera swoops up to look at the enormity of the lobby. Thee score swells in an orgiastic crescendo. It’s rare that you see scenes like this in thrillers anymore, as they seem to be preoccupied with the action, and feel that establishing such moods are trifling. He allows his actors to convey most of the mood and story and character through simple, subtle facial expressions and cute, underhanded dialogue delivery. Despite the ludicrous globe-trekking setup and the unlikely plot contrivances (which are all part of the fun), “The Tourist” doesn’t feel hammy or demonstrative. I liked that.
Many critics have disliked “The Tourist,” feeling that the material demands more froth, more pizzazz. I think they’re ignoring just how strong it is in its current form.