Star power can't prevent death in Venice

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 10, 2010 - 2:50 PM

"The Tourist" throws Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie together in an Italo-caper with few laughs.

"The Tourist" is a shaggy dog story about a shaggy man. Johnny Depp plays Frank Tupelo, a rumpled, woebegone Wisconsin math teacher traveling around Europe. Timid, forlorn and rather inept (he thinks he can communicate in Italy by speaking Spanish), Frank is a real acting stretch for Depp. This unremarkable Everyman is by far the least compelling character the actor has ever played. Wearing a haircut resembling a dead beaver and looking puffy around the face, Depp deliberately downplays his lady-killer looks and slows the speed of his intellect to a crawl. His performance gives us the perverse experience of seeing a dashing, dazzling actor impersonate a passive bore. It's like watching a three-way lightbulb set on low, wishing you could enjoy its untapped brilliance.

Frank is swept up into a world of glamour and intrigue when he's approached on the Paris-Venice express by seductive Elise (Angelina Jolie). She's the partner of Alexander, a crooked banker on the lam since ripping off a gangster billionaire. After radical plastic surgery, he's impossible to find. Because Frank is roughly the physical type of her runaway lover, Elise picks him to be a decoy in a scheme to mislead Alexander's pursuers. Soon Interpol and the rich man's goons are on Frank's trail, with Elise popping into the picture to rescue the hapless traveler when the bad guys start trying to take him out.

This sort of wrong-man yarn can work when it's chockablock with wild escapades and witty banter, which "The Tourist" is not. It is a hollow, soulless exercise that ambles when it should sprint, fumbling every opportunity to turn Frank's misadventure into high adventure. There's no anxiety in the chases. There is zero sexual tension between the regal Jolie and the bloated, unkempt Depp, who projects the appeal of a pile of sawdust. Scenes in which the ice queen thaws as she realizes what a good Joe she put in peril are utterly unconvincing. The actors deliver the script's labored comic lines so poorly that you wince for them. Jolie is gorgeous but her one-note performance of regal bemusement quickly grows tiresome.

Director and co-writer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who displayed a powerful feel for drama with his Oscar-winning "The Lives of Others," struggles to find the right tone.The sight of Depp running over Venice rooftops in his pajamas is conceptually amusing, but dismal as presented here.

Frank's dilemma is put in a new context with a major last-minute twist, when we discover what a devious game the runaway Alexander has been playing. When the big secret is revealed, it's a moment the term "anticlimax" was designed for. It's the low point in a movie made of little more than low points. Enduring "The Tourist" is like going for a ride in a sinking gondola.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

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