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The Tourist (von Donnersmarck, 2010)

Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp

This review originally appeared at Christianity Today Movies and TV.

My high-school drama teacher used to tell me that if the first line of a theater or film review praised the set(s) then you were in serious trouble.

The shots of Venice were dazzlingly beautiful in The Tourist. I would really love to visit that city some day. That’s not much of a compliment for the film, though, is it?

It’s not as though there is anything wrong with taking gorgeous and beloved Hollywood icons—Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie—and dumping them into a beautiful, exotic location without much of a story. That formula is a studio classic, and great movies have been made using it. Roman Holiday comes to mind. Great movies, too, have been made around the conceit of an average person in an unfamiliar setting suddenly thrust into a web of intrigue beyond his or her comprehension. Think North by Northwest, Frantic, or Notorious.

The Tourist, though, can’t really decide which of these formulas, if either, it wants to follow, or even whether it wants to follow them or spoof them. The plot is set in motion when Elise (Jolie), under surveillance from Scotland Yard, gets a note from her lover, who has stolen (we are never told how) hundreds of millions of dollars from gangsters and received plastic surgery to conceal his identity. He instructs Elise to board a certain train, select a passenger at random who approximates his last known features, and convince the authorities watching her that this innocent passerby is him. She picks Frank Tupelo (Depp), an American math teacher from Wisconsin, because he is reading a spy novel and because she knows he will be sufficiently smitten by her beauty to follow her to her hotel room no questions asked.

The premise sounds promising at the pitch level, and Jolie and Depp are each charismatic enough that were there any chemistry between them at all there might be something at stake when one or the other wanders in and out of danger. Instead, however, we get Frank hopping over Italian shingles while wearing designer pajamas and being shot at by squinty-eyed Russian mobsters. Comic relief consists of Frank’s repeated attempts to speak Spanish to the Italian hotel staff and people getting pushed into water. The film also apparently subscribes to the maxim that any scene culminating in an upturned fruit cart is inherently hilarious.

One of many things that separates The Tourist from the classics in the wrong man/mistaken identity genre is that films in this genre when directed by Hitchcock or Polanski were all about the cultural fear of being caught up in a world one didn’t understand. The plot machinations were a metaphor for how alienated from and confused by the modern world the average person was. Today’s tendency is to represent such a plot as a glorious romp, where the average person is just waiting for some superspy to come by, Gandalf-like (or Morpheus-like) and offer him or her a thrilling alternative to his humdrum, boring, conventional existence. Think Cruise and Diaz in Knight and Day, Willis and Parker in Red, or just about any episode of Chuck or Alias. When Elise tells Frank it is her fault everyone is trying to kill him because she kissed him (making them think he was someone else) and he replies that he doesn’t regret it, we are supposed to interpret that exchange as meaning the kiss was so powerful that it more than compensated for the possibility of death. Really, though, the not-so-hidden subtext is that that a life so ordinary that nobody is shooting at you isn’t really worth living anyway. No film should feel obligated to pander to its audience, but it helps if it doesn’t hold the common man in contempt.

Venice really is a beautiful city, though.