Movie Review
The Interpreter


2005

Director: Sydney Pollack
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener
C


here may be no better actor and actress working in Hollywood today than Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman.

For more than a decade now, Penn has been saddled with Greatest Actor of His Generation laurels. In both his on-screen intensity and off-screen eccentricity, he has certainly warranted the countless Brando comparisons tossed his way over the years. Just as it’s tough to mentally connect the brash, young Brando of The Wild One with the world-weary, age-worn Brando of Last Tango in Paris, the politically outspoken, moodily iconoclastic Penn of late bears only the faintest resemblance to Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High or to Madonna’s bad boy beau.


"O'Doul's—Crisp. Clean. Refreshing."

Kidman has, somewhat tellingly, only begun to be widely recognized as the tremendous actress she is since splitting with Tom Cruise. It’s far too pat, however, to try and divide her filmography between the trophy-wife years and her current incarnation as the go-to gal for guaranteed Oscar attention. In doing so, one would have to conveniently overlook, most notably, her quintessential ice-queen in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For and her devastating turn as Henry James heroine Isabel Archer in Jane Campion’s woefully undervalued The Portrait of a Lady. Near the end of the decade that saw her evolution from mere Australian hottie to first-rate acting talent, Kidman gave what remains, for my money at least, her strongest performance to date opposite her then-husband in Stanley Kubrick’s masterful swansong. The tagline for Eyes Wide Shut seemed to say it all: “Cruise. Kidman. Kubrick.” Though her screen-time in the film totaled probably less than half of Cruise’s, it’s Kidman who unquestionably steals the show, handily justifying her billing. Since Eyes—and her much-publicized divorce from Cruise—Kidman has proceeded to nail one prime role after another, from The Others to Cold Mountain to Dogville.

Which brings us to Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter, its irresistible selling point the pairing of Penn and Kidman. In the film, Kidman plays Silvia Broome, the titular translator, working at the United Nations in New York; Penn is Secret Service agent Tobin Keller. Both are sufficiently interesting characters with clear potential for the actors inhabiting them. She’s a political refugee of sorts from the African state of Matobo. Her past as a militant activist remains effectively ambiguous for much of the film, a dramatic conceit that suits the slightly Streep-ish affectation Kidman brings to the part. Tobin is, by default, the straight-man in whom we as an audience come to trust—to be sure, a decidedly different sort of role for Penn.


"The delegate from Cameroon is playing Hide-and-Seek, but I'll find him!"

Penn and Kidman’s fire-and-ice chemistry is fascinating to watch, and, for admirers of their work, easily worth the price of admission. That said, The Interpreter ultimately serves as a textbook case of what an assembly line of screenwriters (five, in this case) does to what might at some point have been a functional script. Quite simply, there are too many underdeveloped ideas, questions raised and never investigated. The narrative grows increasingly far-fetched as it progresses, all building up to an anticlimactic climax so downright stupid it’s hard to watch and then followed by the most nauseatingly didactic denouement in recent filmic memory. What might have been a provocative look at the effects of political disenchantment ends up a disappointing mess comparable to Jonathan Demme’s similarly overstuffed Manchurian Candidate remake last year.

Though Penn and Kidman rise well above the muddled material, Sydney Pollack’s direction deserves at least some of the blame for The Interpreter’s implosion. It appears, at times, as if he’s attempting to steer this relatively literal-minded political thriller into ostensibly existential noir territory. (Indeed, adapted to an earlier era, shadowy femme fatale Silvia and no-nonsense Tobin might have been plum roles for Bogey and Bacall.) This awkward genre tightrope act inevitably adds to the film’s off-putting tonal indecisiveness, even as it makes for some indelible, isolated movie moments for its faultless, magnetic stars.


By: Josh Timmermann
2005-04-26
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