“You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth,” snaps Sean Penn’s gloomy FBI agent Tobin Keller during a rare moment of liveliness in The Interpreter. It’s a strongly expressive piece of writing and one of a select few kernels of depth that director Sydney Pollack’s latest political thriller is able to muster up.
Too bad it’s also stolen verbatim from Pollack’s own Three Days of the Condor, a much more energized and rousing thriller the director crafted way back in 1975.
Unfortunately, “energized” and “rousing” are not adjectives you’d use for a Sydney Pollack film anymore. His last picture was the painfully boring Random Hearts, the movie that triggered Harrison Ford’s current career tailspin. The Interpreter is riveting only by comparison.
The disappointment of Pollack’s newest United Nations-based flick is doubly disheartening because at first glance The Interpreter seemed like a sure thing (its trailer was one of the most promising this year). Coupled with the intriguing collaboration of recent Oscar-winners Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman and what appeared to be an exciting storyline, The Interpreter looked poised to please any film enthusiast.
Alas, it’s another example of the “looks too good to be true” department. The film is sluggishly told, goes on at least 20 minutes too long and is the first movie that I can remember in which droves of people headed for the exits before the credits even started rolling, simply under the assumption that it had to be ending soon.
According to an overly coincidental plotline, Nicole Kidman portrays Silvia Broome, a United Nations translator who overhears a planned assassination in the make-believe language of “Ku.” Not only is she one of the few people in the world who happens to understand this uncommon dialect, but it turns out that she also has a rocky past with the intended target. So it’s unsurprising when Tobin Keller (Penn) begins his investigation a little skeptical about her story. After all, it’s his job to figure out if her story holds water and the thing sounds like it’s got more holes than Swiss cheese.
Ignoring for a minute that the screenplay is reliant on these chance occurrences for there to be a story at all, the film is beautifully crafted and there’s nothing particularly wrong with the acting. Kidman is predictably good in her role. It’s probably her best performance since she won an Oscar for best actress in 2003.
Sean Penn acts capably as well; too bad his character doesn’t feel like it belongs in the movie to begin with. Having lost his wife in a car accident only two weeks before, Keller is a constant downer. The reasons the FBI have for putting this woman’s life in the hands of a hopeless depressive are beyond me – this guy looks like he’s about a half a step from cutting his own wrists. Being faced with this option brings to mind another option from Jeff Foxworthy, “No thanks, I’ll just die.”
Too content to coast on the performances of its cast and unable to generate the necessary suspense, the picture is brimming with talent, but never feels like a whole equal to the sum of its parts. In the end, the film is disappointing, but only bad in comparison to expectations.
But either way you’re still better off renting Three Days of the Condor, when Pollack was still exciting.
Brian Mulligan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.