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The Tourist

by on December 9, 2010
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I enjoyed “The Tourist.” It’s a skillfully-made bit of weightless piffle. No, it will not add anything memorable to the cinematic lexicon, or the filmographies of its stars, Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. But has its charms, and they are not to be easily dismissed.

The film is directed by German filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck — I had to check his name six times to make sure I had the spelling right — who directed the outstanding film, “The Lives of Others,” in 2006. (If you haven’t seen it, get thee to a Blockbuster, or your Netflix account.) The film is gorgeous to gaze upon, with its loving, almost fetishistic ogling of the city of Venice. If I were working for the Venice Visitors Bureau, I’d be pre-ordering copies of the DVD by the barrel full.

For viewing pleasure there is also Angelina Jolie. I commented to some of my fellow critics after the screening that watching Jolie is practically a sustaining entertainment unto itself. If a movie consisted of just footage of her walking around her house, doing chores and such, I’d probably watch it. Yes, I’ve heard people (mostly women) comment about the strange, sinewy contours of her body and how they don’t match her face. Personally, I think that’s part of her appeal — she has an otherworldly quality. She’s like Galadriel from “The Lord of the Rings” — so beautiful it is in some ways terrifying.

Johnny Depp is not nearly so lovely — after decades of defiance, his boyish face is finally starting to swell and droop a little — but I adored the sad quality he gave to his character, Frank Tupelo, a community college math teacher from Madison, Wisconsin. Frank is a mark, a patsy. Elise Clifton-Ward (Jolie) chooses him to sit next to on the train from Paris to Venice simply because he matches the height and build of another man. Elise, who you may have figured out by now is a spy, is using Frank as a decoy to convince the small army of other spies and gangsters tailing her that Frank is the man they’re after.

But she begins to feel badly for flirting with him, because Frank is such a sweet sad sack of a man. He smokes one of those fake electric cigarettes so he can get his nicotine fix without annoying others, wears his hair long and his beard short, and favors clothes that resemble what The Tramp character dresses like whenever he strikes it rich in one of Charlie Chaplin’s movies. Frank tells Elise that his wife left him, though the spies — who are constantly photographing and checking everything — soon learn that she died in a car accident.

The plot is a classic Hitchcockian one built around false identities and double-crosses and a MacGuffin. In this case the red herring is Alexander Pierce, Elise’s former lover and the one everybody is after. Shaw, the British mobster (Steve Berkoff) Pierce stole billions of dollars from, wants his money back and a pound of flesh. The British government, with the aid of the local Italian police, wants Pierce for back taxes — though how a government can tax stolen money is a bit unclear. Paul Bettany plays the unctuous spymaster pulling all the strings.

The story makes little sense, but it’s not supposed to. There’s a big ballroom scene, simply so we can look at a lot of gorgeous people dressed to the nines. There’s a boat chase or two, because it’s Venice, damnit, and not having one would be like setting a movie at Niagra Falls and nobody goes over. There’s a big surprise ending, though if you’re cleverish you’ll have guessed at it long before it arrives.

You’ve probably guessed by now that I’m not really interested in reviewing this movie, but I like talking about it. Maybe that’s because it’s like a fancy sundae, a concoction of sweet thrills and empty calories. We shouldn’t take too long admiring it, because it’ll melt if we do. Just scoop it up, enjoy the sugary rush and smile.

I found it really interesting that in this movie, wherever Angelina Jolie goes, every single man (and many of the women) stop whatever they’re doing to stare at her. I don’t mean sneak furtive glances, but stop in their tracks, turn their heads and watch as she walks by. It actually grows to be comical. I mean, I just wrote a few paragraphs ago about how I think she’s so hubba-hubba, but c’mon — the entire world doesn’t halt just because a pretty girl is in the vicinity.

It reminds me of some feminist film theory I read back at NYU that had to do with looking. The camera gazes at women in much the way that men do, the thinking went, and it becomes a game of ping-ponging voyeurism: We watch the woman being stared at by the men, and she’s aware of their gaze and responds to it, and so forth. I thought it mostly hooey, but they’d have a field day with this movie.

I’ll keep going. Jolie’s other big movie this year was “Salt,” in which she also played a spy. There was a scene early on where she has to escape out of the CIA building where she had been a double agent, and there’s a long sequence where she gets trapped outside on a ledge, barefoot after dumping her unwieldy pumps, and we get quite a leering look at her legs. I remember a lot of female observers saying the whole setup was just an excuse to show off Jolie’s assets. Maybe so.

Except in “The Tourist,” Johnny Depp gets stuck in almost the exact same situation: On the run, out on a ledge and traipsing across rooftops without shoes and wearing only his PJs. So there. Although I’ll admit Depp’s legs aren’t as comely.

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