- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Purely as a political assassination thriller, Sydney Pollack’s “The Interpreter” has too many nuts and bolts. Its foundational plot point — a U.N. translator overhears cryptic talk about a conspiracy to kill an African dictator during his address before the General Assembly — withers under so many cons and double-cons.

It’s like a Rubik’s Cube: Spend two hours with it, and you’ll be lucky to have all its colors in their proper rows.

As a bank-shot commentary on all the trouble in the world, “The Interpreter” pushes a gauzy internationalist fantasy: A web of institutions like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court will administer a sterner and more reliable brand of world justice to bad guys than guns and bombs.

Let’s just say the verdict is still out on that one — precisely because the jury never stops deliberating.

All that said, Nicole Kidman, who plays the interpreter, and Sean Penn, the Secret Service agent assigned to investigate her claim, fairly simmer with mystery and intensity. Both gradually peel back layers of grief, virtually the only thing that he, a sad-eyed security man who has trouble keeping names straight, and she, a sophisticated linguist with multiculti credentials, have in common.

And get this: Mr. Penn never screams. Not once. Oh, he boozes and broods and listens to Lyle Lovett with a tear, but Mr. Pollack let the Oscar winner pitch exactly zero histrionic hissy fits.

Miss Kidman’s glamour is similarly pocketed. Her Silvia Broome is a gloomy introvert, a disappointed idealist with a cold-fish English accent and a dark apartment filled with exotic African bric-a-brac.

Broome is initially doubted in her belief that Edmond Zuwanie (Earl Cameron, a gray-haired, milky-eyed Bermudan who’s perfect in the role), the reviled strongman (he’s basically a proxy for Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe) of fictional African republic Matobo, is in real danger. After grilling her as though she’s a suspect rather than a tipster, Tobin Keller (Mr. Penn) has Broome undergo a polygraph test. Count Zuwanie’s shifty security chief (Jesper Christensen) as a skeptic, too.

But all is cloudy, not least because Broome herself is so coy, revealing only what she absolutely must and evading, maybe intentionally, Keller’s “Fugitive”-like team of agents. (Always-clever Catherine Keener, as Keller’s lieutenant, is given a quip or two but mostly plays wet-nurse to Mr. Penn.)

It emerges that Broome has activist roots and a tragic family background in the violent, strife-torn country where the movie spends a later-to-be-explained prelude before switching to Manhattan, photographed in all its towering, teeming beauty by Darius Khondji.

Cross-cutting the intrigue is an exiled rival of Zuwanie’s, a stylish capitalist colorfully named Kuman-Kuman (George Harris), who gabs gleefully for the throng of international press at the United Nations. The whereabouts of another rival, conveniently characterized as a socialist, are kept right under your nose.

“The Interpreter” is the first movie to offer an extended look at the interior of the U.N. headquarters. Mr. Pollack, a 70-year-old veteran with no discernible screen style, makes sure to serve up all the bells and whistles of the landmark complex, which are cumulatively less interesting than a pyrotechnic sequence filmed in Brooklyn. The borough’s busy multiethnic brew helps drive home one of the movie’s undeveloped themes: America could become Israel in the time — ticktock — it takes to explode a public bus.

As entertaining as it often is, “The Interpreter” never adds up. Possibly that’s because it was the brain work of five writers, two credited with the bones of the story and three — including “Get Shorty’s” Scott Frank and “Schindler’s List’s” Steven Zaillian — with the actual screenplay. (You’ll notice a contrived touch, presumably Mr. Zaillian’s, of calling-the-roll-of-victims, “Never forget” realism, which is kind of offensive here.)

What they produced is ultimately a tangled skein of paranoia and liberal idealism. They could’ve used an interpreter.

**

TITLE: “The Interpreter”

RATING: PG-13 (Violence; some sexuality; brief profanity)

CREDITS: Directed Sydney Pollack. Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Kevin Misher. Story by Martin Stellman and Brian Ward. Screenplay by Charles Randolph, Scott Frank and Steven Zaillian. Cinematography by Darius Khondji. Original music by James Newton Howard.

RUNNING TIME: 128 minutes.

WEB SITE: www.theinterpretermovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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