Like the Vatican, the United Nations has carved a niche for itself ' an oasis of diplomatic immunity ' amid the hustle and bustle of a teeming metropolis. Its headquarters, which occupies a decent-sized chunk of Manhattan real estate along the East River, was completed in 1953 when the International Style of architecture was spreading its wings across the globe. And you can still detect, among the complex's straight lines and gentle curves, its spare dÃcor, an idealistic longing for rational discourse. The Vatican seems expressly designed for the hatching of intricate plots, one dark room leading to another. The United Nations, in comparison, is all windows.
And yet here it is, in its feature-film debut, providing the setting for a political thriller in which nothing is out in the open. Sydney Pollack's The Interpreter, which stars Nicole Kidman as a U.N. translator who overhears a conversation about killing an African leader as he addresses the General Assembly, is less interested in the art of diplomacy than in the dark shadows of international intrigue. It's one of those I-think-somebody's-following-me movies, except good luck figuring out who's following whom and why. Even Kidman's Silvia Broome, who grew up in the African country that may soon lose its leader, becomes a suspect when it's discovered that her family was killed by the liberator-turned-liquidator.
Don't they do background checks on U.N. employees? Silvia's background, come to find out, should have raised all sorts of flags, which is what happens when Sean Penn's Tobin Keller, a Secret Service agent, arrives on the scene. Keller's a just-the-facts kind of guy, and we're meant to enjoy the game of cat-and-mouse as he stalks his prey and his prey looks for a hole to disappear into. But every time Penn and Kidman get a little something going, the plot thickens, to the point where the movie finally turns to mush. There's a certain pleasure in watching superior actors try to work their magic on mediocre material, but is it worth the price of admission?
Kidman, who must have gotten hold of Meryl Streep's old Berlitz tapes, goes for a British-by-way-of-Matoban accent, Matobo being the fictional country that Silvia hails from. She also speaks Ku, a completely invented language that is presumably easier to fake than, say, Swahili. Even so, Kidman has obviously done her homework, and it's easy to buy her as a translator, but the foreign tongue flattens her performance, keeps her from diving in headfirst. Or maybe Pollack kept her from it. Silvia's a woman with a secret, and we know this because a rather large strand of hair keeps covering up half her face. But it's difficult to tell from Kidman's self-contained performance just how suspicious we're supposed to be of Silvia.
For his part, Keller's too suspicious at first, not suspicious enough later. Thus it goes when characters are at the mercy of the plot. Penn hasn't been given very much to work with other than that Keller's recently lost his wife in a car accident, but the greatest actor of his generation is incapable of tossing off a performance. He has a nice scene where Keller lets the grief seep out of his pores, which makes you wish he'd had an actual character to play. Catherine Keener, as Keller's wisecracking partner, actually fares better, if only because we expect supporting characters to have less flesh on their bones. Plus, the comic relief is more than welcome. The rest of the movie is about as lighthearted as a U.N. resolution.
Thirty years ago, Pollack brought us Three Days of the Condor, a first-rate thriller. Ten years ago, he brought us The Firm, a second-rate thriller. He's not known for his fancy footwork. But he has a way with actors, being one himself. (He plays Keller's boss here.) And he usually knows how to tell a story. But The Interpreter soon gets bogged down in the mechanics of its assassination plot. When half the cast winds up on a city bus with a bomb along for the ride, it should be harrowing, or at least suspenseful. Instead, we're busy trying to figure out what they're all doing there. Pollack doesn't dumb the story down, but he doesn't smarten it up either. The Interpreter has all the hallmarks of an intelligent thriller except the intelligence.