STUDIO: Universal
MSRP: $29.99
RUNNING TIME: 129 min.
Deleted scenes

Quality political thrillers just don’t seem to be too common — for every No Way Out, there’s a Murder at 1600 or Shadow Conspiracy or Enemy of the State. Director Sydney Pollack previously visited the genre some thirty years ago with the excellent Three Days of the Condor, but if The Interpreter is any indication, he only had one good political thriller in him.

The Flick

Nicole Kidman is the interpreter of the title, mousy United Nations linguist Silvia Broome, who hails from a fictitious state in Africa (just roll with it). While returning to the UN building late one night to grab some personal items (including her flute, which unfortunately she later toots), she overhears a plot to assassinate a ruthless African dictator who will soon be visiting.

"Waitaminnit — who’s pregnant?!?"

Silvia reports the threat, but is surprised to discover that humorless Secret Service agent Keller (Sean Penn) has been assigned not to protect her but to investigate her claim. Keller is rightfully skeptical that Silvia happens to be the only one to hear this conversation, spoken in her obscure language in a room filled with microphones. When her life is threatened, Keller starts to believe her, but upon further investigation he discovers she may have once been a political activist against the same dictator. Is she a victim or a participant?

This snarled script (literally cobbled together during filming by no less than five high-profile scribes) obviously wants to appear intelligent, but it’s filled with the same curious conveniences and complications you’d find in any B-movie. The film’s purported setpiece, a sequence of deceptions and mishandled surveillance that culminates in the numerous players assembling on the same Brooklyn bus, is a bit more preposterous than riveting. Dodgy dialect notwithstanding, the fact that the story presents a porcelain-skinned beauty like Kidman as the burden-bearer for a corrupt African government and its genocidal methods is also highly suspect.

While awaiting Stephen Chow’s call for the sequel, Small Brother occupied himself with international relations.

Penn and Kidman do have some nice exchanges, but the script deflates any possible romance between them by having Keller melodramatically recovering from his estranged wife’s recent death (perpetually dour, Penn seems to be slowly transforming into French actor Dominique Pinon, while his sentient amorphous hair strives for a performance award of its own). Pollack (or his casting director) must be a huge fan of HBO’s Oz – it seems like most of The Interpreter’s supporting cast was once behind the bars of that show. As Keller’s affably sardonic partner, Catherine Keener makes the best out of what essentially amounts to a cameo appearance, but considering the dozen or so other characters who disappear after their introduction, she shouldn’t feel too slighted.

You can’t begrudge Pollack’s direction – the film looks outstanding. But it might’ve been a swell idea to have a viable (or at least moderately cogent) screenplay before gathering such esteemed talent. Rather than a modern classic of political paranoia, you could swap out the leads with Stephen Baldwin and Vanessa Angel and toss it on the back rack, and it wouldn’t affect the script’s bewilderment or believability.

5.5 out of 10

To keep his cred up, Penn practiced the South Side greeting.

The Look

A superb 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer proves that (sorry to reiterate) Pollack is certainly capable of making fantastic looking films. But judging by this, Random Hearts and Sabrina, he just forgot how to make good ones.

8.5 out of 10

The Noise

As the title might imply, it’s the sort of movie that revolves around the talky stuff, and the Dolby 5.1 soundtrack gives it to you with vigor.

8 out of 10

Now that’s my kind of wrap party…

The Goodies

Probably more treats than the film deserves, the special features start with an audio commentary by Pollack. While rather sporadic, it does have plenty of insight to the business aspect of filmmaking more than the film itself (which unsurprisingly required constant revisions and reshoots). Pollack appears again in the featurettes, in which he discusses his transition from actor to director and talks about the various challenges of making a movie that’s “not embarrassing” (good try), and another 5-minute quickie in which he crabbily denounces pan-and-scan editing (he’s long been a widescreen proponent).

There’s also a brief featurette on the United Nations building called “The Ultimate Movie Set”, which is certainly hyperbole even if it is the first movie allowed to film on location there, followed by a look at real-life interpreters (who do not like to be called translators). This is all topped with an alternate ending that’s a goofy variant on the film’s, and a few deleted scenes, excising a bit more of Keener’s already sketchy character.

6 out of 10

The Artwork

Obviously trying for a 24 vibe, the cover has Penn running between a bus explosion, which is not only a spoiler but the sole exciting moment in the film. Next to them is an unnatural airbrushed image of Kidman (where are her teeth?) that would look more at home on a Scream sequel poster.

4.0 out of 10

Overall: 5.7 out of 10