Sean Penn makes you think he could be Bogart - that's director Sydney Pollack's finest accomplishment in The Interpreter, a derivative, hollow, yet exceedingly well-paced and handsome thriller that co-stars Penn as a Secret Service agent and Nicole Kidman as a U.N. interpreter.
She eavesdrops on an apparent assassination plot that targets a ruthless African dictator; he investigates the threat and ends up guarding her. It's a marvelous setup: He needs to know everything about her, and she doesn't want to give anything up.
As a man whose troubled marriage ended with his wife's death in a car crash, Penn doesn't overdo the moroseness, especially in the company of Catherine Keener, who's superb as his sharp, droll partner. His sadness lends fluidity to his just-the-facts-ma'am stance. He's operating on adrenaline and exhaustion, and rather than dry him out, it makes him more intuitive and open.
Too bad sparks don't flash between him and his co-star. Kidman is in fabulous shape - maybe too fabulous. She resorts to calculated glamour-puss acting. It's as if she rehearsed every taunt and provocation, every quiver and tremble, in a full-length mirror at a health club.
The main problem is that she's playing an agenda, not a character. Cooked up by a horde of screenwriters, The Interpreter attempts to do several things at once: plead for the importance of diplomacy over action; awaken international consciousness of African catastrophes; argue for a politics of truth and forgiveness rather than brinksmanship and revenge.
And the moviemakers put it all on Kidman's shoulders as a white African from the fictional country of Matobo who lost her parents and her sister to a land mine and has several links to the dictator and his opponents (one socialist, one capitalist). It's too much for one gal (or guy) to handle, even a hardy sophisticate like Kidman.
Her cool resolve fits perfectly when she's hiding information from Penn, but she never achieves full thaw. And that partial melting reduces the underlying drama.
Sure, the U.N. setting recalls the start of Hitchcock's North by Northwest; a number of sequences summon classic Hitchcock images from Rear Window and Sabotage; the climax mirrors Frankenheimer's (and Demme's) The Manchurian Candidate. Yet the movie takes its biggest loan from the plight of the leads in Hitchcock's The 39 Steps - strangers who fall in love when shackled together, on the run.
The potential adult beauties of The Interpreter are that its shackles are moral and philosophical and that both characters are too raw to give in to fleet romance. Unfortunately, Pollack and his writers find no way to integrate feeling and debate into the action. They erect a superstructure of deft thriller tropes on a swerving emotional foundation. Pollack can make old-hat set pieces seem brand-new, including a scene of antagonists converging on a New York City bus that's so keenly timed and acted it will have viewers chewing their nails down to the cuticles.
Still, the movie's main strengths are its use of the real United Nations as its prime location and Pollack's ability to stud this movie (as he also did The Firm) with players who do supporting-character equivalents of star turns. Earl Cameron is magnificent as the slimy old fraud of a dictator, and George Harris is on the money, in more ways than one, as Cameron's capitalist opponent: He puts heart and savvy into the phrase "all business."
The U.N. presence keeps the movie energized: Initially exalting, the General Assembly has an ambience that changes with clashing waves of rhetoric. The most enticing part of the structure may be how it opens up a city that embodies internationalism organically: Its vast picture windows showcase the miracle of New York.
Starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn
Directed by Sydney Pollack
Released by Universal
Time 128 minutes
Sun Score ***