'The Tourist': Why the Angelina Jolie-Johnny Depp Flop Deserves a Second Look

Yes, it tanked at the box office. But the movie is worth watching, if only as a curiosity.

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Columbia Pictures


Few recent releases have flamed out quite so spectacularly as The Tourist, which opened stateside in December to tepid reviews and slower-than-expected business, and almost overnight became an object of ridicule. There have lately been money-losers of much greater magnitude (this month's Mars Needs Moms, for instance), but The Tourist's unique combination of flawless pedigree—Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp, white-hot European director—and overall inertness made it an easy target. The film, nominally a classic action-romance picture trafficking in international mistaken-identity intrigue and outlandish financial crimes, essentially boils down to ball gowns, timepieces, and really nice stationary, and so viewers are faced with a choice between indulging in its lavish appointments, or beginning to make jokes at its expense.

Most seemed to choose the latter option, including Golden Globes host Ricky Gervais, who in his opening monologue memorably demystified the film's two Globe nominations, its only awards-season recognition: "I'd like to quash this ridiculous rumor going around that the only reason The Tourist was nominated was so the Hollywood Foreign Press could hang out with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. That is rubbish. That is not the only reason. They also accepted bribes." Cut to Depp, who was hiding behind a pair of sunglasses, chewing gum, his face fixed in a wince. The feature-length co-star of Gervais's joke arrives on home video this week (and on Netflix next month), offering a good opportunity for reappraisal. It should first of all be declared that The Tourist, in which British agent-gone-dark Jolie entangles unwitting math-teacher tourist Depp in a dangerous attempt to reunite with her mysterious fugitive lover, is not top-to-bottom rubbish. The second feature from German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck—easy to forget, since his debut, The Lives of Others, was such an assured (if unsubtle) piece of filmmaking—is indeed a bit of a sophomore slump, but it doesn't quite deserve its low reputation, either.

In her championing of the Venice-set film, Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek extended the movie's elevation of really nice stuff from mere set dressing to full-blown theme, by comparing the star vehicle to a cocktail—"a Bellini, fizzy and sweet and dry all at the same time." While The Tourist's tonic qualities might be disputed, it does offer some substantial pleasures, particularly of the dry variety. These mostly come courtesy of Depp, in bewildered mode throughout, cast into a plot whose mechanics he can't fully grasp, but almost casually accepting of every new development—recalling his career-best work in Jim Jarmusch's 1995 anti-Western Dead Man. Here Depp's character, Frank, dazedly stumbles through shootout chases and police interrogations, as if one of his beloved spy thrillers has sprung to life around him (Frank fumbles with a paperback called The Berlin Vendetta when Jolie's Elise takes a seat across from him on a train).

Aside from its minor pleasures, though, The Tourist might also wind up enduring as a kind of curiosity. In a Daily Beast postmortem on the film, one of Nicole LaPorte's sources offers that "[von Donnersmarck] was interested in making a movie that was about elegance and the glamour of stars. It was not supposed to be a hard-edged thriller. He wanted to make a style piece. That may have been a miscalculation." The "elegance" and "glamour" of two of Hollywood's brightest stars is indeed here thrust to the fore, even more so than usual. What's more, there are hardly any other concerns occupying the foreground. The thriller elements and the dialogue here seem almost deliberately by-the-numbers, so as not to distract from the sheer star wattage.

The Tourist is, at its core, a movie about the nature of seeing and being seen, featuring a perhaps-not-entirely-inadvertent barebones, feminist-film-theory-inflected demo of classical Hollywood patriarchy. Depp, the disheveled, down-on-his-luck, paperback-reading teacher from Wisconsin, serves as the audience's (male) point of identification. For her part, Jolie is objectified to an almost absurd degree, constantly watched by (exclusively male) surveillance experts. At one point the mere sight of her prompts Frank to inadvertently blurt out the PG-13 film's token "fuck," and Elise renders speechless nearly every man she encounters, as if even these thunderstruck waiters and bellhops inside the movie are unable to process her as anything other than a fantasy, a glamorous apparition, a totally bewitching flicker of light. The audience is, of course, also implicated in all this looking.

The final scenes of The Tourist attempt, with mixed results, to complicate and maybe even half-heartedly critique these power dynamics, turning a few tables and imparting to certain players more agency than they initially seemed to have. The film ultimately skews more toward knowing tease than coherent statement, but at its most intriguing The Tourist plays like a movie turned completely inside out, an espionage movie willing to spy on its own inner workings.

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Benjamin Mercer has written on film for The Village Voice, The New York Sun, The L Magazine, and Reverse Shot. He is a copy editor at Bookforum. More

He has also copyedited for two New York dailies: The New York Sun and amNewYork.

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