Elise: I’m Elise.
Frank: I’m Frank.
Elise: What a terrible name.
Frank: It’s the only one I got.
Elise: We have to get you another one.
That wry scene introduces the moviegoer to the peculiar delights of “The Tourist,” a tale of low-level intrigue, sane humor, as well as high-level sophistication in plot, concept and production design. On that high-speed trans-European train is born a new love story that isn’t really new, and a thriller that is so set up, we actually suspect early that we ourselves are being set up by its director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who co-wrote the devilishly crafty screenplay with Christopher McQuarie and Julian Fellowes. The original story concept comes from 2005 French thriller, “Anthony Zimmer.”
The unlikely romance between gangster moll and continental society figure Elise Clifton-Ward (Angelina Jolie) and Frank Tupelo (Johnny Depp), a schoolteacher from Wisconsin, U.S.A., is set in a world that spy agent 007 James Bond knew so well, a glamorous place populated by snoops from the Interpol, handsome operatives in Her Majesty’s Secret Service and a stock arch-villain who issues threats with a twitch of the lower lip, his stare icy cold, surrounded by not-so-bright looking and blond Slavic bodyguards and henchmen with uniformly receding hairlines.
Elise, a woman who falls in love too easily, could also get away with murder too easily. She’s on the run, hounded by both the Interpol and evil British tycoon Reginald Shaw (Steven Berkoff). Shaw once had an aide and later partner in crime, Alexander Pearce, who disappeared along with the 2.3 billion euros (nearly $3 billion) that the mobster boss was supposed to get. The British police are after Pearce because he owes the government £744 million (around $1 billion) in back taxes. Why the British government would have any business taxing money that it fully knows to be dirty is beyond me, but this is just one of the jokes in “The Tourist.” The authorities’ eyes, ears and the latest electronic spying gadgets are all on Elise,the woman whose heart Pearce had enslaved who knows all the secrets and could even be in possession of the loot.
The plot is worthy material for another James Bond sequel. Venice provided the climactic scenes of the latest and probably the best in that series, “Casino Royale,” starring Daniel Craig. Some suspenseful scenes of “Moonraker” and “From Russia With Love” were also filmed on the squares and in the canals of “The Queen of the Adriatic.” It is not without reason that Timothy Dalton, secret agent 007 in two films, has got the role of police chief inspector in this movie.
Grimy Venice of yesteryears is gone
The Venice of today is a far cry from that of three decades ago, before the city’s great cleanup and polishing operations took place. Even as late as the first half of the 1990s, Venice was in a state of decay and decadence, with its ancient structures under constant repair and new construction being planned and debated. This being Italy with her contentious politics, it was a miracle of modern European politics that the bickering stopped and the city fathers got their act together, producing the spic-and-span La Serenissima that’s for us to enjoy in “The Tourist.”
For example, gone are the scaffoldings that perpetually blocked the facades of such landmarks as the Basilica di San Marco, one of Europe’s most beautiful structures. And even in the early 1990s, when an uncle first visited, the entire exterior of Santa Maria della Salute church was smudged all over with soot and grime. But today its dome is a neat shade of gray that seems to gleam under a bright sun. But Venice then had a certain romantic, even Gothic charm that’s missing today, a foreboding air that we can catch in Nicolas Roeg’s thriller-horror film released in 1973, “Don’t Look Now,” with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie.
From the moment that our odd couple Elise and Frank steps into Hotel Danieli – three palazzi conjoined and converted into one of city’s choicest hotels –- until Elise is entrapped in the claws of Shaw, the plot moves with a gentle rhythm punctuated by robust action and edited with precision under the no-nonsense visual style of Henckel von Donnersmarck –- and always with a measured dose of wit and humor.
There are four episodes of daring escapes and chases, mostly taking place in the estuaries of the Grand Canal or somewhere close to the Rialto Bridge. The earliest chase shows Frank clad in satin pajamas running scared on the ochre brick tiles of Venetian rooftops, hounded by Shaw’s Russian bullies.
If you expect the actors in “The Tourist” to act up outdoing each other with the hope of getting an Oscar award nomination, you’ve come to the wrong movie. Paul Bettany plays Inspector John Acheson with a rough and suave edge that recalls Jon Hamm’s similar role in Ben Affleck’s “The Town,” at the same time masculine and gallant. Berkoff reveals mobster boss Shaw’s megalomania in every line he utters. “Now,” he says with relish on a flight in his private jet upon learning that Elise was headed for Venice, “what do I own in Venice?” Berkoff melds the standout traits of James Bond movie villains such as Auric Goldfinger, with the bombast of Dr. Evil (Mike Meyers) in “Austin Powers,” but avoids looking or sounding ridiculous.
Depp sheds all sophistication except the sophistication of a comic artist doing a difficult role. As a recently widowed schoolteacher from Middle America, he gives the un-debonair Frank a layer of innocence and sadness and a resolute gentleness that recalls his role as “Peter Pan” author J.M. Barrie in “Finding Neverland.” It’s also this trait that Elise finds irresistible, although we wonder whether she might be in it only to make Frank an accessory to or fall guy in her next crime. The Wisconsinite sports long hair that says: rock star, but the way it’s parted in the middle makes him look nerdy, more like a hick or a has-been Don Juan.
Lost in the splendor
As sketched by Depp, Frank’s naivete borders on a caricature of an average tourist in Venice, lost in all that splendor and criminal intrigue. His surname Tupelo squarely of Italian origin, he doesn’t even have a clue about the language of his forebears, turning to his measly Spanish vocabulary as a way out of tight spots. Awakened by a trio of assassins, he rings up the Danieli’s front desk. “Buon giorno, signore,” says Reception. “Bon Jovi,” a nervous Frank shots back then gropes for the words in Spanish. In the film’s climax, he appears wearing a shabby ensemble in a black-tie-only grand ball, where he seems oblivious to the fact that he’s the only man there with long hair and a white jacket.
In “The Tourist,” with Jon Hutman in charge of the overall design, Angelina Jolie gets to carry some slim and fancy clutch bags, wear a to-die-for pearl necklace, travel in a white silk dress with a cream-colored wrap, and dangle a pair of earrings with huge round diamonds in the middle that get built-in extra sparkle from the tiny stone gems set around them. Toward the end of the story, Shaw invites her to a grand ball that she knew was going to be a trap for pivotal character Pearce, and for her as well. So she goes to her possible martyrdom sporting a hairdo in the shape of a cinnamon bun, wearing a flowing, strapless black dress that bares her shoulders, and around her neck, a stunning lacework of diamonds that could sit on her head like a tiara.
And it’s all for show. Jolie struts around with her chin always raised a few millimeters above whatever one calls a female Adam’s apple (Eve’s apple?), her hips swaying like an Egyptian court dancer, but all these are by an Angelina playing a pun on her glamorous persona, a self-parody if you will of her star image. The other Jolie for me is as real, the woman who over the recent holidays visited an animal shelter in Namibia with her husband actor Brad Pitt and kids to make a donation, dressed down in cliché safari ensemble.
After making her entrance to the ball that is every bit as dramatic as Audrey Hepburn/Eliza Doolitle’s royal entrance in “My Fair Lady,” Depp joins Jolie in an amusing tribute to a classic –- classic slapstick, that is. To the sweet strains of mandolins and violins playing some Italian mazurka, the lovely couple glides and talks, then waltzes and talks some more, just like Leslie Nielsen and Priscilla Presley did in one of the “Naked Gun” films.
Henckel von Donnersmarck’s unswerving loyalty to the style that he adopted for this movie makes it that: a triumph of style over what is an enjoyable story anyway. Underlying Frank Tupelo’s tale, the direction, the acting and the overall design is the theme of what it’s like being a “tourist” — travel being an activity when we are at our elementary best or worst, shedding or guarding the images and delusions about us that we or others have crafted for ourselves through the years.