For all its posturing of political relevance and emotional depth, Sydney Pollack's lugubrious and lumbering thriller The Interpreter doesn't feel even remotely real. In and of itself, fantasy doesn't doom a thriller, but Pollack's latest has no guilty-pleasure compensations outside of the much-promoted added-value verisimilitude lent by unprecedented access to the real United Nations building.
Nicole Kidman plays Silvia Broome, a U.N. interpreter from the fictional South African nation of Matobo. Her skill in a Matoban dialect makes Silvia very much in demand when Matobo's ruthless despot Zuwanie (Earl Cameron) announces he'll be addressing the General Assembly. But after hours one night, Broome hears whispers creep out of her headset, whispers that promise Zuwanie's assassination on American soil.
Enter Sean Penn as brooding federal agent Tobin Keller. Still mourning the fresh loss of his wife, Keller doesn't trust Broome, whose own familial losses (at Zuwanie's bloody behest) have likewise branded her with pain and compensatory drive. Though Broome refuses to level with Keller—instead answering his every question with obtuse epigrams—Keller just can't help falling in love with the lithe linguist.
The romance is senseless on every level. Once we accept that Keller is so shaken by his wife's departure that he can't even sleep in his own apartment, it's hard to accept that he'd fall for the sour Broome, who he immediately and correctly labels a liar. And though Keller is off his game, he seems too smart not to stay well away from her erogenous zone, at least for the few days until the scheduled assassination attempt. Screenwriters Charles Randolph, Scott Frank, and Steven Zaillian leave the sword lying between them, but Keller's obviously too distracted by her to do his job properly.
The Interpreter starts out crisply, with an unsettling scene in Africa that sets the stakes, moody exposition, and an initial meeting between Broome and Keller that crackles with intellectual and sexual tension (the writers nicely undermine Broome's company line—"I believe in this place. I believe in what it tries to accomplish"—with Keller's retort "You've had a tough year, lady"). But William Steinkamp loosens his reins at the editing suite, the script crumbles, and the actors flounder through tiresome and eventually self-important paces.
Pollack mounts a handsome production, and his actors can't be blamed for lack of effort: theirs is simply a lost cause. By the pre-climax, which insists with orgiastic fervor that no one cares more about this African nation than its wounded white daughter, most will be inclined to eye-rolling instead of weeping, and the hideously pat post-climactic coda invites open mockery.
In Se7en, DP Darius Khondji made New York glisten seedily; here, it more often gleams with cold pride. Unfortunately, this isn't a photography exhibition but a thriller (with the unusual, buried-in-the-end-credits, lawyer-mandated designation "With the help of The Interpreter by Suzanne Glass").
The supposed thrills, though, are pedestrian and largely nonsensical, and the only significant action set-pieces have been done before and distinctly better: a terrorist act recalls a scene from Edward Zwick's far superior political thriller The Siege, and the assassination scene—with its Oswaldian sniper—holds up to neither The Manchurian Candidate nor Star Trek VI, when the scene at least boasted aliens.
Those who view this movie as a smart political thriller will have to explain to me what they're seeing that I'm not. I'm as happy as the next guy to boo and hiss at a corrupt tyrant, but no amount of plot convolutions, contrivances, or clever turns of phrase will convince me of clear and present, intelligent political discourse in The Interpreter. What I see is a second-rate morality play, with red herrings and MacGuffins shoring up a tower of Babel. Do yourself a favor and rent Death and the Maiden instead.