Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) must protect Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman), an interpreter.
Every character in The Interpreter could be related to Andy Garcia. I don't know, it's just a hunch. Nobody slouches. Everybody forms their words with the soulful scruff of the world-wary. No smiles are ever cracked. Sideways glances are de rigueur. Everyone is smooth but lived-in, and at times, I expected the camera to pull back to reveal whatever men's cologne or low-cost insurance they were selling.
The light is crisp, and the pace is brisk, and no matter the situation (terrorism, interrogation, after-work cocktail), you want to be there. I wouldn't have been shocked if Sean Penn, appearing swollen in that patented look of Sean Penn grief, rocked himself into a good cry, the screen faded to black, and a logo for, say, Advil filled the screen. Perhaps it could be a companion to the Chanel perfume spot his co-star, Nicole Kidman, recently made with director Baz Luhrmann. Her ability to convey determination appears no less heartfelt than her ability to get across dignity.
One emotion is no more sincere than the other, and let's not fault her for being a very fine actress (or Penn, an obviously terrific actor). But a wall of class has gone up. Which serves her anonymous performances well in equally anonymous movies like this. Kidman's perfect tone and soothing diction is at the center of The Interpreter, a slick thriller about intrigue at the United Nations. But she could be HAL, the murderous robot in 2001, and that's just as well: This is a film as metallic and airtight as a new Escalade. It conveys the very best of everything that went into it, buffed to a pricey sheen; and it also conveys something about the futility of revenge, but I don't know: Afterward I mostly wanted to purchase a new Escalade.
Universal got what it paid for.
The best of everything: The composer is James Newton Howard, who gives his low lights (Miss Congeniality 2) and his highlights (Collateral) the same tightly wound gallop. The cinematographer is Darius Khondi, who practically invented the goth-rock music video with the highly stylized look of Seven. The three screenwriters include two of the smartest scribes of modern Hollywood productions, Scott Frank (Out of Sight) and Steve Zaillian (Gangs of New York). The stars are heavyweights, Kidman and Penn, together for the first time; and even the minor roles are filled with A-list support like Catherine Keener, who plays the working partner of Penn's Secret Service agent. (She also has the thankless task of inserting snide quips between the chilly glares of her humor-deficient co-stars.)
The director is Sydney Pollack, who is always tasteful, always a class act, and rarely interesting; he's best known for Out of Africa and Three Days of the Condor, which is sort of a blueprint of the paranoia that shapes The Interpreter.
The real pleasure of a Pollack picture is his consummate professionalism. He knows how to tell a story, to the point that his films (including this one) often grow excessively elaborate. The best parts of them are always the least soul-searching and the funniest: Tom Cruise ducking Gene Hackman in The Firm, Dustin Hoffman's tantrums in Tootsie.
Likewise, the best parts of The Interpreter are the most tossed-off: It's the first film to be made within the walls of the United Nations building in New York City, and the long airy hallways and austere chambers appear almost like a 1965 notion of what a building would look like in 2005.
The other impressive moments come in a scene (albeit, an improbable one) where Kidman boards a bus and confronts an African dictator. Meanwhile, the camera casually notices the man sitting nearby is carrying a suitcase explosive. There's nothing funny about it, the aftermath is brushed aside too quickly, but it plays with that clearly seen linear sense of Alfred Hitchcock.
Show us the bomb.
Show us the room.
Distract us. Then remind us.
Still, Pollack doesn't trust his ability with fluff - which is odd since the filmmaker himself is a regular in Woody Allen films and nearly any list of the best comedies ever made would include Tootsie. The Interpreter shouldn't be light: The subject is genocide, retribution, terrorism, and grief. But like a lot of Pollack's films, that high-mindedness is not worked out with anything more than pieties. They grow so unrealistic, his films feel no more demanding than a beach read.
But, he made up a country: the republic of Motabo, which is apparently in southern Africa - a meaningless stand-in for the real problems of a real African nation like Zimbabwe. Kidman plays Silvia Broome, a U.N. translator, who incredibly got that job in a post-9/11 universe despite very few people knowing much about her background. The film is spotted with inconsistencies, some that play as red herrings, others that shine like a beacon.
She arrived from this fictional Motabo, and being the chief U.N. translator ("Nations go to war over miscommunication," she says), her talent for languages stretches from her cool English to the little-spoken Motabo dialect of Ku. This comes in handy when she happens to leave her flute in the sound booth, then happens to come back late at night to retrieve it, at a moment when two men happen to be in the U.N. general assembly room discussing the future assassination of an African president, who happens to be scheduled to address the GA in the next week.
They happen to speak Ku.
They happen to spot her.
Assigned to investigate her highly questionable tip, and later, protect her, is Sean Penn as Tobin Keller, a sullen Secret Service agent who's wife recently died in a car accident for no other reason than it makes an eerie parallel to Kidman's Broome. She lost her parents and her brother to an African revolutionary who became a tyrant. Meet the new boss same as the old boss, that sort of thing. She also has a poetic explanation of why she (or he) should not say the names of the dead. It's the heart of the film:
When you say the name of the dead, she says, you have passed grieving, whether you are prepared or not. She also has a lyrical description of how revenge is handled in her native culture. If a man commits a crime and is caught, he is bound and thrown in a lake. The grieving party has two options: They can let him drown and receive justice but no peace. Or, they can save him and get peace but have to admit sometimes bad things happen.
Of course, there is great meaning to this. Like a lot of Pollack's pictures, it would've stayed more meaningful if it wasn't returned to over and over, if it wasn't over explained - if it just rested in our heads to ponder and apply.
There is also a scene where Kidman says to Sean Penn: "Did you know the leading cause of death to beavers is falling trees?"
I'm still pondering that, too.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: email@example.com