The Interpreter: high-minded stodginess, no thrills.

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April 21 2005 5:02 PM

Lost in Translation

The Interpreter is all high-minded stodginess and no thrills.

How do you say "earnest" in Ku?
Click image to expand.
How do you say "earnest" in Ku?

We should all be grateful when A-list, Academy Award-winning talents come together to do something more meaningful than a mere cloak-and-dagger thriller: a thriller with a message of peace and nonviolence and a commitment to international human rights; a thriller that incorporates a non-Western philosophy that's radically different from the usual eye-for-an-eye red-meat opportunism of most American action movies.

We should be grateful, but we are lowly, imperfect creatures. Besides, The Interpreter (Universal) is too bloated with its own significance to deliver the requisite thrills. It's directed by Sydney Pollack, who made one of the scariest paranoid thrillers of the post-Watergate era, Three Days of the Condor, and whose legendary clashes with Dustin Hoffman helped produce the fluke comic masterpiece Tootsie. But Pollack's Oscar for Out of Africa convinced him he was a major artist, and his subsequent movies have been weighted down by humorlessness and self-importance.

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Speaking of humorlessness and self-importance, The Interpreter gives us Sean Penn, with gray hair at the temples, as a Secret Service agent trying to foil a mysterious (and possibly nonexistent) assassination plot against an African dictator planning to give a speech to the United Nations General Assembly. The problem is that Penn can't play just any agent trying to do his job. He has to have his own traumatic back story and overflowing well of grief over a dead wife, because what's a Penn performance these days without the actor emoting in close-up for a camera frozen in awe? (You can practically hear the director say, "And now, ladies and gentleman, the stylings of the premier actor of his generation.")

My theory—and it's just a theory, my evidence is only what's on screen—is that a multimillion-dollar rewrite guy (either Steven Zaillian or Scott Frank, who both get a credit with Charles Randolph) got hired to load emotional baggage onto Penn's part. Otherwise, the focus would be entirely on Nicole Kidman as a U.N. interpreter named Silvia Broome. Silvia leaves a bag in her translation booth and, when she returns to get it, overhears a whispered plot to assassinate the president of the fictional African country of Matobo, Zuwanie—an idealistic liberator turned ethnic cleanser.

Silvia reports what she heard to the authorities, but Penn's Tobin Keller thinks she's hiding something. After all, she has a back story of her own and many reasons to despise Zuwanie. She also has a very peculiar accent. Early on, there are some good, ping-pong exchanges between Kidman and Penn, but the hostility between the two characters seems a mite trumped up.

Kidman is excellent, although she's once again upstaged by those locks of hair that hang artfully in her face. It must have been very hard for Pollack to answer the old "What's my motivation?" query, because Silvia seems to have about 10 conflicting motivations in the course of the movie. A former Matoban rebel, she's now the film's spokesman for a nonviolent ethos she translates from the "Ku" language, which holds that vengeance is a lazy way of mourning and that you have to rescue your drowning enemy to be healed. She and Penn's Keller fix their blue eyes on each other and have a lot of dark-night-of-the-soul exchanges that take the wind out of an already convoluted conspiracy plot.

A light touch would help, but the lightest character and actor—Catherine Keener as Keller's tart colleague—gets left out of all the fun. And with the exception of a well-designed set piece involving several agents and suspects converging on the same bus, The Interpreter is stodgy and misshapen. It manages to be both thoroughly confusing and entirely predictable, thanks to a climactic plot twist that you can see limping toward you about an hour before the maudlin hero manages to. That climax comes with a civics lesson in which the heroine spells out that ethnic cleansing is a very bad thing. I couldn't agree more. But I also wished for a little less highmindedness in the pacing department. The Interpreter is so lofty it feels as if it were made to be screened at the United Nations.

Update: My hush-hush Hollywood inside sources tell me that the Keller back-story was in Charles Randolph's original script, which was rewritten to accommodate the needs of Nicole Kidman, not Sean Penn. It sounds like Randolph's climactic revelation was much more compelling, and would have taken some of the sanctimoniousness out of the climax.

Also apparently tested but not used was an ending in which John Bolton becomes incensed when Nicole Kidman does not translate, "Matobo has lovely veldts" as "Matobo has lethal nukes" and chases her around the U.N. with a machete.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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