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LOST IN TRANSLATION
SYDNEY POLLACK'S SUSPENSE FILM FAILS TO DELIVER THE THRILLS

The Interpreter ** 1/2 (out of four)

Rated: PG-13

Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn and Catherine Keener in Sydney Pollack's suspense thriller about a U.N. translator who thinks she overhears an assassination plot. Rated PG-13, opening Friday in area theaters.

First the title.

If there's a duller, more generic and less appetizing one for a suspense thriller than "The Interpreter," I'm not sure I know it. It sounds like the deceptively mild title of a Kafka short story.

At least "The Shawshank Redemption" -- a past light-heavyweight champion of bad movie titling -- had a Stephen King story to work off.

"The Interpreter," to put it blandly, is not a title that screams "SEE ME!" to an American moviegoer -- old OR young -- in 2005.

Now consider the movie's promotional campaign: The First Movie Ever to Be Filmed In the U.N.

True, no doubt, but not exactly a major inducement to gas up the Saturn and head for the mall where it's showing. Even worse, wherever that tale has dropped on the world, it's always mentioned that Hitchcock, for instance, could never convince the U.N. to let him film part of "North by Northwest" there. It seems to me the last movie that director Sydney Pollack should want "The Interpreter" mentioned anywhere near is Hitchcock's consummate late-period bedazzlement.

Comparing "The Interpreter" to "North by Northwest" is like comparing the Bills' Travis Henry to Gale Sayers or Jim Brown.

There is so much that's good about "The Interpreter" -- starting with the cast -- that it's almost physically painful to report how much every bit of it fails to excite any of the unsavory passions that animate us wretched, prurient moviegoers. (Something, for instance, that isn't at all true of, say, "Hotel Rwanda.")

"The Interpreter" is a suspense thriller largely without thrills. It makes do with one decent jolt and some fair "what's-going-on" suspense at the end but it's clear from the start that Pollack, at 70, is way too good a man to care a whit about the grubbier things a good thriller director is supposed to care about.

At one point in his movie, all manner of possible saboteurs and assassins somehow wind up in the same Manhattan bus together with the government agents tailing them all. It should have been the showpiece of the movie, a sequence for the anthologies.

It's played for mild incongruity, suspense and surprise but one can only imagine the rich absurdities that a virtuoso like Hitchcock (or even John Frankenheimer in his prime) would have wrung out of such high nonsense.

Here's what Sydney Pollack really cares about in "The Interpreter": lead characters who struggle with varying shades of grief and remorse for two hours; and the politics of Third World revolution in Africa, where noble revolutionaries have a way of devolving into tyrants capable of "ethnic cleansing."

There's at least one good movie in all that but "The Interpreter" - which is trying to be a suspense thriller first and foremost - isn't it. It turns out to be little more than a sparkless, melancholy mood piece starring two of the best film actors working. Anyone looking for the kind of glamour sparks ignited by Faye Dunaway and Robert Redford in Pollack's "Three Days of the Condor" won't find them.

Nicole Kidman plays a U.N. translator from the fictional African country of Matobo. One night, when she goes back into the U.N. building to retrieve her flutes for her evening music lesson, she overhears an assassination plot in one of the more obscure languages of Central Africa.

She reports it to U.N. security who have to call in the U.S. Secret Service when it turns out that the U.N. will, in a few days, host a speech by the much-hated premier of Matobo, a blood-soaked slaughterer whose career began, a decade before, in nobility and idealism.

The Secret Service agent in charge is Sean Penn, playing a man deep in messily conflicted sorrow after the accidental death of his faithless, philandering wife.

These, assuredly, are great film actors. If a script and a director say that one (Penn) should be almost washed out in grief, he'll truly seem to be. If they say that one (Kidman) should be a puzzle who could turn out to be an assassin, that's exactly what she'll be - and she'll be a glowing, magnetic camera presence for every second while doing it.

These are not actors who waste time in front of a camera lens. They don't waste your attention either. They command us to watch them.

So we do. And for what? A movie where the director is simply too good a man to cater to any of the dirtier, nastier desires of thriller audiences.

It may make Pollack one of the great and noble wise men of current American movies but that doesn't necessarily translate into a guy who's made a movie that fires the synapses or takes up long residence in the Bijou of your memory.

For the record, Catherine Keener, a superb actress, is largely wasted as Penn's mordant Secret Service partner. And Earl Cameron, a character actor with a formidable, camera-hogging face submerged in melancholy, plays the African deliverer-turned-dictator.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com