Interpreter, The

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 01/04/07 15:08:42

"It's a thriller! It's a drama! It's...uh...neither."
3 stars (Average)

Nobody seems to have slept much in 'The Interpreter,' a dour and serious-minded political thriller that makes the case for diplomacy over violence -- which doesn't make for a terribly exciting thriller.

In any event, everyone in the movie pulls all-nighters, out of duty or habit, watching or being watched, and fretting ceaselessly about past and possible future traumas. The movie could be called National Insecurity. The motor for this thriller is a feeble one: A bloody-handed African dictator is threatened with assassination, but because he's not sitting on billions of dollars worth of oil, the U.S. Secret Service moves heaven and earth to protect him.

The dictator isn't the only one needing protection. Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman), an African by birth and an interpreter at the United Nations, overhears a possible plot to whack the dictator. Silvia takes this information to the Secret Service, who, in the person of recent widower Tobin Keller (Sean Penn, gray of hair and face), is skeptical at first. Soon, though, Silvia attracts the wrong kind of attention; a shadowy assassin begins tailing her, and she has mysterious connections to the dictator. It's all enough to keep Sean Penn up all night. As low-key here as he was keyed-up in Mystic River, Penn gives an implosive performance without much inner life; it feels like a contractual obligation, though, to be fair, the many-handed script doesn't give him much to play with, other than a vaguely amusing running almost-joke wherein he keeps calling a pair of agents "Lewis and Clark."

High-class to a fault, and well-cast in every supporting role (the roster includes no fewer than four veterans of HBO's late, great prison drama Oz), The Interpreter nevertheless burns with a very low flame, powered less by thrills than by its high-minded message, helpfully spelled out by Silvia in a monologue about how people deal with rage and grief where she comes from. The movie, I understand, has been in the works for years, and what possibly started as a down-and-dirty thriller that would never have gotten permission to shoot in the actual U.N. building (as this movie did) became, after 9/11 and various pre-emptive wars, a Big Statement on the importance of the U.N. as peacekeepers. It's a useful message just now, yes, but thrillers aren't the best couriers.

Part of what stops the movie up is its inevitable white liberal guilt. When you get down to it, what we have here is white (skinned) knights racing to the rescue of a vicious black ruler, whose reign is threatened by two other corrupt black guys. The Interpreter touches very lightly on the racial issue, to the point of sanctimony. But the unavoidable subtext is that whites, preferably American, know what's good for everyone else on the planet. There's a bitter nod to geopolitical reality, though, when Keller's boss (played by director Sydney Pollack) notes that, with America's world popularity at an all-time low, it wouldn't look good for a dictator to get killed in our country, especially one we don't like.

As a director, Pollack seems more interested in windy drama than in thrilling the audience; the movie is overlong and underpowered, with a mid-movie bus explosion tossed in reportedly to spice things up and acknowledge the spectre of terrorism. (Why the perpetrator is allowed to leave the bus when not one but two undercover agents are on board is a question for a better script.) Fans of the snarky Catherine Keener, intriguingly cast here as Keller's partner, can look forward to some entertainment value, particularly the politely clenched way she addresses a stripper who's lap-dancing a visiting dignitary. Keener is the movie's only connection to humor, but she's not around nearly enough, and the bulk of it is given over to Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman mourning their respective losses.

If you want to make a serious film about human-rights abuses and the U.N.'s role in policing them, you make one, without the clichéd backstories and the exploding bus. If you want to make a thriller, you forget most of the above -- Hitchcock sure did -- and focus on danger and intrigue. The effort to play it both ways must've kept the screenwriters up all night, too.

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