Clive Owen takes an aggressive approach to directing traffic in The International.
At first blush, there’s a lot to like about The International. First and foremost, it touts two very attractive—and bankable—stars. Clive Owen is a smart, rough-hewn Brit with a ton of charisma. Naomi Watts is a smart, finely chiseled Brit/Aussie with a ton of sex appeal. A best-case scenario here would involve lots of appealing, charismatic British/Australian sex between the two. Alas, they are not linked romantically though each smolders for the other enough to keep a possible liaison in play throughout their screen time together.
Throw in a driving plot line about the evil doings of a massive banking conglomerate—a story that, given recent events of high-level bankers competing for popularity scraps with the likes of bad lawyers, sleazy car salesmen and juiced-up baseball superstars, is a kind of grand slam of fortuitous relevance—a lavish set design, a location list that includes New York, Istanbul, Milan and Berlin, and you’ve got a no-brainer on your hands, right?
Sadly, after a brilliant opening scene in which director Tom Tykwer plays cat-and-mouse with the viewer to grand effect, the term “no-brainer” begins to apply to Eric Singer’s script rather than this movie’s can’t-miss status. And by the end of the thing, when the credits roll over a montage of morose newspaper headlines, every bit of potential held by this movie has imploded under the weight of a story that folds on itself like bad origami.
The scripting offenses are both numerous and egregious. There is no narrative anchor for Owen’s Louis Salinger, a former Scotland Yard cop turned toothless Interpol detective. The victim of a mysterious and haunting beatdown at the hands of the very bank in question, he’s like a tortured hound dog on their trail, yet seems shockingly naïve about their operations.
The nefarious bank itself engages in activities that would have the most paranoid of conspiracy theorists nodding in assent. But despite the fact that Tykwer and Singer go to great lengths to frame this as a moral cesspool, nothing really sticks, and if that not-sticking is meant to be part of the final message it could have, and should have, been done far more provocatively.
But the low-hanging lemon on this script is Watts’ role as Eleanor Whitman, a New York City district attorney. Yes, there are a couple of rather feeble attempts to justify her place by Salinger’s side as he traipses around the world looking for the bad guys, but still: she’s a district attorney, from New York, and he’s an Interpol detective out of Italy. There’s almost nothing you could do to make this pairing feasible, and that effort gets undermined constantly by Singer, who somehow expects his lead actress to spit lines like “Who gives a shit about jurisdictional prudence?” and “We’re just trying to get to the truth!” without gagging.
Just at the point when Whitman’s illegitimacy as a character paints her very existence into a corner, Singer waves his hand (via a quick scene in which Salinger tells her “I’m the kind of bridge you burn”) and makes her go away. It’s as ungraceful an exit for a major character as you’ll see, and again, if that un-gracefulness was supposed to be the point it fell far short of the mark.
As a closing note, comparing apples and oranges is always a dicey proposition, and feature Hollywood films couldn’t be more removed, in the film industry, than the burgeoning documentary genre. But movies are made to be watched, and ultimately must be judged on the viewing experience they offer—and in that regard, it’s an interesting proposition to compare The International (or, to be fair, any of the myriad underachieving, big-budget fiascos that hit thousands of screens every weekend) to the slew of movies running at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival (BSDFF).
You can probably tell where I’m going with this, but every one of the doc films I’ve been lucky enough to catch so far has been a viewing experience far superior to The International. Obviously, nothing in the BSDFF lineup can come close to the image quality, technical editing proficiency or star appeal possessed by the crew and cast of The International, but that’s probably why these docs are so much better. Without the trappings of a big-budget feature, the story becomes paramount. And nothing works without story, be it fact or fiction. There’s a line in The International that goes something like “The difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.” That’s a lesson the makers of The International would have been well served to heed.
The International is currently screening at the Carmike 10.