Sunday, May 15, 2011

Too Many Secrets (Farewell and The Tourist)

Farewell (2010) tells a great story from the ground up: In the early 1980s, during the last pinnacle of the Cold War, a high-level Russian intelligence agent passes state secrets to a low-level French operative, leading ultimately to the downfall of the Soviet Union. The Russian, Sergei Gregoriev (Emir Kusturica), is a fortysomething epicurean, gregarious and reckless, in possession of a fed-up, middle-aged wife, an obsessed mistress, and a teenage son with an appreciation for "decadent Western music." The Frenchman, Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet), is a thirtyish intellectual, whose ambition and timidity pull him in opposite directions and threaten to estrange him from his own young wife and infant children. The movie begins in media res (finally, an excuse to use that phrase!), with Sergei waiting for Pierre while ensconced in the back-seat shadows of the latter's car. It's an opening reminiscent of Alan Pakula's work with Gordon Willis, yet where Farewell departs from its forbearers in the genre is Sergei and Pierre choose to conspire not at a loading dock or in a underground garage but rather directly outside a public event (a circus performance featuring one of Pierre's daughters). The hiding-in-plain-sight joke turns into a running gag, as the pair continue (at Sergei's behest) to rendezvous in one public area after another, exchanging government records during the harsh light of day. Sergei's scheme is so counterintuitive that his colleagues in the Russian intelligentsia overlook it entirely; it's so mundane that it takes a while for the French and American presidents -- Mitterrand (Phillippe Magnan) and Reagan (Fred Ward) -- to realize the gold mine of information that's landed in their laps.

This has all the makings of a terrific thriller, a human-scaled epic out of le Carre, so it's puzzling that Farewell never quite grips as a satisfying whole. The director, Christian Carion, works with an ambitiousness that exceeds both his budget and skill. Individual sequences, like a white-knuckler at a border crossing, are deftly staged. But there's a lack of momentum from one scene into the next; even a montage late in the movie featuring the international rounding-up of covert KGB agents (one of them played in a wordless cameo by Diane Kruger) lacks a sense of how this humdrum operation affects the bigger picture. Inconsistency also plagues the performances. Kusturica (who is a Serbian film director) plays Sergei like a Russkie Brendan Gleeson, expansive, flawed and soulful, whose commitment toward giving his son a brighter future is the catalyst for his actions. Canet (perhaps also better known as a director, namely of the superb French thriller Tell No One) renders Pierre an effective everyman, less goal-driven than Sergei to "change the world" than he is at bucking for promotion, yet increasingly terrified of getting caught, getting killed, or losing his family. On the downside, Fred Ward's turn as a bizarrely engaged Ronald Reagan is a constant source of distraction, and reminded me of Phil Hartman's priceless countermythical impression on Saturday Night Live: "I've got to do everything by myself!"

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck makes up for the cunning of his surveillance experts in his last film, The Lives of Others, with a vengeance in the first five minutes of The Tourist (2010), opening with a laughably conspicuous black panel van tailing Angelina Jolie from about ten feet behind. Jolie plays an English mystery woman (a secret agent, or femme fatale, or something) named Elise Clifton-Ward, who shows her knack for undercover work by appearing in magazine-cover attire and burning a surreptitious note dropped at her table in an outdoor Parisian cafe. A head of British intelligence (Paul Bettany, spending the movie glaring at computer screens and barking orders into microphones) commands his team to Get That Note!, and they tail their leisurely-paced high-heeled target down the street before losing her in a subway tunnel. I was hoping to see Jolie give her pursuers the slip through a gaggle of nuns, but von Donnersmarck sadly lacks a flair for the ridiculous.

Rather, The Tourist doesn't seem to know it's ridiculous. Or perhaps the movie senses this quality (there is a lingering whiff of desperation) but won't embrace it. Obviously von Donnersmarck wanted to make a lighthearted Hitchcockian travelogue -- To Catch a Thief, et al. -- and that kind of movie would have been more than welcome, but what he came up with instead can only be described as laboriously breezy. (Come to think of it, To Catch a Thief wasn't that great in the first place.) On a train for Venice, Elise meets Frank Tupelo (good sport Johnny Depp), a mild-mannered American tourist who becomes her dupe as she plots to evade both the clueless Brits and a ham-fisted gangster in order to rendezvous with her white-collar thief-lover. The leads have zilch chemistry, the chase scenes move at half-speed, and the director appears to have advised every male actor in the cast to react to Jolie's entrances like a cartoon wolf clubbing his own head with a mallet. No question she's still a looker (though the botox is starting to get in the way), but it's a weird case of overselling from a filmmaker whose debut was breathtakingly calibrated. The Tourist is a comatose non-starter.

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