Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 28, 2006 6:45 pm 
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Glossy mediocrity

A whispered conversation overheard after hours at the General Assembly by a UN interpreter (Nicole Kidman) reveals that someone plans to assassinate an African leader who's soon to speak there. They were talking in an African language that is her specialty, and she has a special connection with the country where it's spoken. Reluctantly alerting the authorities she is soon pursued by Africans and guarded by a Secret Service man (Sean Penn), while plans are made to avoid an international incident which would be particularly embarrassing to the US since it is not favorable to the leader in question. Eventually there are surprise revelations about the interpreter and about the assassination attempt. Along the way a bus is blown up in Brooklyn, a death is revealed and several others averted, the interpreter makes a radical change in her life, and the Secret Service man and she part, vowing to keep in touch.

One could never quite bring oneself to see this and now one sees why. After ten months, finally, wandering in a rental shop not noted for its rich or exotic offerings, one said, "Why not?" Well, here's why not. Because this is a loud, glossy mediocrity. Because it is not believable for a minute, because the actors are miscast, and because there is hardly a single memorable scene. Because the music is bombastic and obtrusive, the cinematography is generic and the suspense is nonexistent. Because the self-consciously "classy" thriller with its "serious" content is bungled, confused in its motives, and arguably offensive in its political implications.

Neither of the stars is quite right for their role The secret service honcho Sean Penn plays is suffering -- too much, and his overacting makes it worse -- but this is a routine character in what is basically just a high-flown police procedural situation, and Penn is not a routine actor. Why does his voice sound at the start of almost every speech like he's about to cry? His nasality must be the result of excessive smoking. He looks overstuffed, and, after such an interesting career, surprisingly ordinary.

A UN interpreter is not likely to be someone who looks like Nicole Kidman. This is just a hunch, but it's a confident one. Having listened to UN interpreters at work, one isn't convinced that Nicole has got the pacing and tone very well. She bravely soldiers through some lines of the made-up generic African tongue, but that is brief. The interpreter should not have been the lean and beautiful Kidman but someone a bit more mousy and workmanlike, but with an edge. Someone has suggested Catherine Keener, who's certainly wasted as the generic mannish fellow lawperson, but one might prefer someone softer than Keener, but more inward, subtly neurotic, frustrated, clearly intelligent. Kidman could perfectly well be the young revolutionary or whatever it was her character used to be. It is harder to see how she could have moved on to this other role in life.

Better casting might have helped. Except that the writing -- many have commented that this screenplay was produced in effect by committee -- is botched from the start. The UN probably doesn't employ full-time interpreters whose main languages are an obscure African dialect and its mainstream counterpart. She is shown doing French to English too, which would justify her presence, but when she meets a French friend, they switch to English -- obviously so we can follow without those awful things, subtitles, and so the committee didn't have to write the lines in French. Ivan Attal, who's a director, who plays the part of the French friend, might have managed, but that was not to be. Perhaps Nicole can't go the distance in French herself. It seems far-fetched that Kidman's character, with her back-story, would have made it through the UN's screening process. Except that one has the feeling the back-story is changing as the movie progresses -- not because more is being revealed, but because the writers are changing their minds midstream.

What is the point of a made-up country and made-up language? Unfortunately, it is due to timidity, not a desire to make a more general statement. There is a vague assumption, from one of the various writers no doubt, that the US is the savior of all nations. As Walter Chaw has sharply observed apropos of the movie's setup, "the tendency for the United States to regularly comment (almost unfailingly through Caucasian filters) on the failures of the rest of the world can be seen as either the most odious sort of arrogance, the bloodiest of well-meant bleeding hearts, or business as usual in the life of the world's self-anointed church lady." It's also offensive that the assassination is seen primarily not as an irony (the great struggle to prevent it, the movie's apparent focus, when Nicole and the US rulers and clearly also many citizens of the country he runs would all like to see the African leader dead) but an awful thing -- because it could be embarrassing in Washington. In the days of Hitchcock -- who, as has been pointed out, created suspenseful and fun magic without actually shooting at the UN as Sydney Pollack got to do -- maybe this sort of thing didn't matter. We know a bit more now and require more detail about international politics, which we get, and the more detail the writers of The Interpreter provide, the further they go out on a limb, and the more this movie seems a sterile exercise.

In some roles, as recently as Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, Sydney Pollack has worked well as an actor. Here, his appearances, in a role that is too much like director, are really obtrusive. It's like seeing the mike boom in a shot. But this is just one of many miscalculations in a movie that is at best only competent and leaves you with nothing of value to take home and remember. I keep thinking of the drawn-out scene where Nicole has a pistol to the head of the African leader. His solemn frown simply says, "My God I'll be glad when we're done shooting this scene."

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