Johnny Depp suddenly appears dangerously close to finalizing the sale of his soul to the mindless popcorn movie gods. The transaction is being held up only because Depp, who is now 47 years old, remains Tim Burton's golden child—but that will only save him for so long.
The downward spiral probably began in 2003, when Depp starred as Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, which remains my favorite film of the last decade in terms of my expectations being exceeded. It's also the film where Gilbert Grape quickly realized he could do mainstream, have kids love him, and he could get paid big time for it. If you're thinking to yourself, "Hey, Depp only did two Pirates sequels, he can still take on odd and subversive roles like Willy Wonka and Sweeney Todd," then you are not only forgetting below- average mainstream roles like John Dillinger last year, but you also have not heard the news from last week that Depp has reportedly signed on to do three more Pirates of the Caribbean films. There is apparently a lot of gold inside of that treasure chest.
So, you can see where I'm heading with The Tourist, Depp's latest attempt at wooing the mainstream audience, and a film that stars many beautiful and rich people doing the things beautiful and rich people do. It's a shiny and hollow film, one that left me more depressed than angry at what could have and—given the skill set of Depp, Paul Bettany, Timothy Dalton and even Angelina Jolie—should have been.
The Tourist is a heist/spy film hybrid that takes the best of Ocean's Eleven, The Italian Job and Casino Royale, and proceeds to do the exact opposite. There is but one scene, in which "the tourist" (Depp) is chased in his pajamas across the rooftops of Venice, where director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck manages to capture the spirit of the genre by simultaneously thrilling and entertaining the audience. The rest is cluttered with boring characters, a plot that makes almost no sense and one of the worst twist endings in recent memory. It's a film that's never quite sure whether it's a straightforward thriller or, in the spirit of True Lies, a soft parody of the genre. It ends up being neither.
Depp plays Frank Tupelo, the best looking and—based on his clothing—the best-paid community college math teacher in Wisconsin. He's on vacation in Europe when approached on a Venice-bound train by Elise Clifton-Ward (Jolie), the kind of woman who causes car accidents when she walks down the street and knows it. Unfortunately her curves and her money appear to be her only assets—she's a lot like Jessica Rabbit, minus the intelligence.
The money comes from her lover, a mysterious man named Alexander Pierce who is on the run from a British gangster from whom he stole $2 billion, and Scotland Yard, to whom he owes about $700 million in back taxes. To confuse the authorities, Alexander tells Elise to cozy up to a man who fits his description, a man who turns out to be our American tourist, Frank.
Their first encounter on the train is mildly entertaining, if only for the puzzled look in Frank's eyes as he ponders this mysterious woman's true motives. Before you know it they're having a romantic dinner on the train, and Elise has invited him to her five-star luxury hotel in Venice. If this sounds implausible, you are correct in thinking so. Even the fact that Frank sleeps on the couch in the hotel suite cannot make up for the silliness that has preceded it.
That's not to say I expect plausibility in my caper movies. I understand that George Clooney robbing three Las Vegas casinos of $180 million without breaking a sweat is implausible. I understand that driving three Mini Coopers into a Los Angeles subway station (à la The Italian Job) is an unlikely scenario. And here in The Tourist I am more than willing to suspend disbelief and accept that the banker of a gangster could steal that much money. I'm that much of a sucker for heist thrillers.
The Tourist fails in relation to other similar films because it makes the human elements as unbelievable as the technical ones. Frank slowly discovers, to his horror, that the bad guys have pegged him for Alexander, and Elise must deal with the moral dilemma of having put this likable guy in a really bad spot. Through it all I never felt sympathy for either of them, and as the preposterous plot unravels (did I mention that you're really going to hate the big reveal?), I only started to resent our beautiful-looking stars even more. Not even Captain Sparrow can save this sinking ship.
The Tourist continues at the Carmike 10.