Lost in translation

The Interpreter

“Stop calling me, Tom!”

“Stop calling me, Tom!”

Rated 2.0

The Interpreter has a great pedigree, and with that comes great expectations. Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn and director Sydney Pollack line up for a political thriller that must be something fantastic to attract this sort of talent.

It sure does look that way for a while, as the story unfolds of a U.N. interpreter (Kidman) who overhears some talk of an assassination. It really does seem as if it’s working up to something, and something big.

Then, with the lamest of the lame endings, the sucker goes thud.

The lameness of the ending doesn’t really hit you until the ride home. It’s one of those “movie” endings that could never, ever happen, tacked on to a film that was reasonably credible up to that point. Won’t give it away here, but take my word for it. It’s stupid, and it owes a lot to Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.

On the positive side, the film does feature Kidman and Penn doing fine work. Penn plays federal agent Tobin Keller, a sufferer of recent tragedy who must clear his head and do his best to make sure nobody gets shot while giving a speech at the United Nations. Keller doesn’t buy Sylvia Broome’s (Kidman’s) story that she has heard an assassination plot in her headphones after hours at her job. He thinks she has secrets, and, as the movie unfolds, we find out she does.

Is she really an assassin? Is she just a pawn in an assassination plot? It doesn’t matter because the ending is just a big cheat.

While I’m complaining, let me just say that I hate these movies that make up fake countries so as not to commit themselves politically. This time out, Kidman is a native of a fake place in Africa called Matobo, which might be a thinly masked Rwanda (protesters of Matobo’s leaders scream about genocide). Why not pick a real nation and a fictional leader? Hollywood does it with the United States all of the time. Cowards!

The film does have some historical significance. Pollack actually got permission to shoot inside the real U.N. building, which he did on the weekends. That’s all well and good, but it’s not like we haven’t seen the inside of that building before, so big deal.

Pollack does manage to uncork a couple of good scenes, including a terrorist act on public transportation that definitely raises hairs. In fact, Pollack does a good job of tricking viewers into thinking they are watching a film of substance until its final act. The movie looks good, and some tension does build up, which makes it far from an agonizing experience.

Kidman is strong, if perhaps a little miscast, in the title role. Her character has a mysterious African revolutionary past, but she just doesn’t look like a mysterious African revolutionary. She looks like a Chanel spokesmodel. Penn brings his usual great self to the role of a man who has had it up to here with people trying to pull the wool over his eyes. Things get a bit strange when their characters get a little closer, but Pollack keeps things from going overboard.

A whole lot of intrigue and a whole lot of decent acting add up to a whole lot of nothing. The Internet Movie Database reports that Nicole Kidman signed on for this project without reading a script, and that doesn’t seem surprising at all in retrospect. The Interpreter looked like it had the makings of the year’s first great film, but it winds up being just another big-ticket movie with no place to go.