(PG-13) 3.5 StarsDavid Hoppe
Sydney Pollack movies are like luxury sedans. They tend to be good-looking, well-engineered and comfortable. If they lack a raffish charm, they are, more often than not, reliable. The Interpreter finds Sydney Pollack working at the top of his game, which is to say in full Lexus mode. It's a smart, stylish entertainment, and a satisfying commercial showcase for its stars, Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. Nicole Kidman stars as African-born U.N. interpreter Silvia Broome in 'The Interpreter,' a suspenseful thriller of international intrigue.
The story revolves around a conspiracy to assassinate the tyrannical leader of an African country at the United Nations. Nicole Kidman plays a U.N. translator who, by chance, overhears a sliver of conversation that tips her to the scheme. This puts her in danger, but the true nature of that danger is a mystery because, as it turns out, Kidman's ties to the target of the plot are deep, complicated and painful.
Enter Sean Penn, a Secret Service agent assigned to the case. Penn's character is more than a little wrecked himself. What's more, it's not entirely clear whether his job is to investigate Kidman or to protect her.
At his best, Sydney Pollack has a knack for bringing out the intelligence in movie stars. So we not only have the pleasure of seeing great looking people on screen, we get the added buzz from finding that there may actually be something interesting going on behind their eyes. The chemistry between the wintry Kidman and the beat-down Penn may, at first, seem asymmetrically out of synch, but Pollack makes it work. Kidman is cerebral but mysterious, the hair that keeps falling in front of her eyes is like a veil. For his part, Penn has the lined, world-weary look of a man overwhelmed by facts. These are two wounded people trying to make sense of their suffering in a seemingly hostile world. Pollack directs their dance with great restraint and, to his credit, avoids playing to the crowd.
The film makes great use of its location, the United Nations building in Manhattan. This is the first time a feature film crew has been granted access to this site. Apparently, Hitchcock wanted to shoot some of North By Northwest here but his request was denied. In those days, the powers that held sway at the U.N. probably felt that going Hollywood was somehow beneath them. But those days, the time when popular culture and high culture traveled in separate berths is long gone. Now, the people in charge probably concluded that a handsome thriller like this one, which, by the way, casts the role of the U.N. in a plausibly positive light, would be a welcome rejoinder to the chronic sniping the institution receives from Beltway Republicans and right-wing pundits.
Like any thriller, The Interpreter trips the light fantastic now and then with what passes these days for credible human behavior. Its shorthand version of Third World politics could use a little more elaboration. But the story's twists and turns hang together and Pollack throws in some dandy set-pieces. There is a scene on a bus that's a gritty variation on the old whodunit dinner party scene where all the suspects are brought together. It's crowded, headlong and just absurd enough to be really frightening.
Hitchcock would probably have approved.