Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Venice — what more could you want from a movie? Quite a lot, actually, judging by “The Tourist,” an all-too-resistible Euro-chic trifle that marks an undistinguished Hollywood debut for German talent Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Like a beautifully tailored suit that starts to smell funny after a few minutes, this sumptuous but stultifying lark sets up a quasi-Hitchcockian intrigue between two strangers abroad, but smothers any thrills or sparks in a haze of self-regard. The considerable eye candy of its stars and locations aside, Sony release may not rack up much B.O. mileage domestically, though international prospects look healthy.
Admittedly, there was little reason to expect von Donnersmarck to spin this work-for-hire into a sophomore outing as accomplished as his knockout 2006 writing-directing debut, “The Lives of Others.” And he scarcely deserves all the blame for a production whose creative team has seen more revolving doors than Venice’s famous Hotel Danieli (shown to nice effect here). A remake of 2005’s little-seen French thriller “Anthony Zimmer,” the film was conceived as a vehicle for Charlize Theron and Tom Cruise (who was briefly replaced by Sam Worthington), just as von Donnersmarck was preceded by Bharat Nalluri in the director’s chair. Factor in a much-rewritten screenplay (Julian Fellowes, Christopher McQuarrie and the helmer receive onscreen credit), and one almost begins to admire the final product for at least achieving a state of marginal coherence.
One morning in Paris (France, we’re helpfully informed), the exquisite Elise Ward (Jolie) strolls down to her favorite cafe and receives a letter from her lover, Alexander Pearce, whom we eventually learn is an elusive, high-class thief wanted for stealing $744 million. Her actions are closely monitored by a team of Scotland Yard detectives led by Inspector Acheson (Paul Bettany, high-strung), whose determination to collar Pearce borders on obsession.
Following Pearce’s exact instructions, Elise hops a Venice-bound train, where she subtly puts the moves on Frank Tupelo (Depp), a random, slightly rumpled American traveler whose provenance (“a math teacher from Wisconsin”) is the script’s idea of a joke worth repeating. Employing an arsenal of suggestive glances and coy one-liners, Elise contrives to throw the cops off the scent by making them think Frank is Pearce.
Something feels amiss with this wrong-man setup from the get-go. With his longish hair, signature goatee and vaguely European bearing, Depp is precisely no one’s idea of an American average Joe, and the choice immediately raises eyebrows as well as questions about the film’s intentions: As Elise verbally seduces Frank the Yank in a first-class dining car, are we watching a luxuriant transcontinental thriller or a sly, self-aware comic exercise? Are Depp and Jolie trying to channel Cary Grant and Eva Marie-Saint in “North by Northwest,” or is something weirder and more inscrutable afoot?
No answers are immediately forthcoming, and the film’s pulse quickens only modestly once the two arrive in Venice, where Elise is torn between her devotion to the unseen Pearce and her sudden, unaccountable feelings for Frank. Complicating matters further is the arrival of an English crime boss (Steven Berkoff, enlivening the proceedings with real menace) on Pearce’s trail, initiating a series of unexciting chases — sometimes by boat, sometimes over rooftops — in which Elise and Frank keep alternating between rescuer and rescued, their identities a continual matter of suspicion for the other characters and the audience.
Presumably, viewers are meant to find all this mystery thrillingly romantic, and by dint of its setting alone, “The Tourist” is not without a certain elegance. As he demonstrated in “The Lives of Others,” von Donnersmarck is a classicist with a clean, unfussy visual style and a refreshing aversion to the frenetic editing schemes so in vogue among contempo action-thrillers; he also tends to lean too heavily on music (an alternately jittery and swoony concoction by James Newton Howard). As for Venice, the world’s most improbably gorgeous city has rarely looked better on film, lensed in sweeping overhead shots that accentuate its sun-drenched beauty as opposed to its after-dark decay.
Nor should one disregard the pleasures of watching two glamorous actors in motion, whether it’s Jolie entering a ballroom coiffed like Sophia Loren, or Depp riffing on his own debonair persona. But what lingers long after “The Tourist” has faded is the sense that, amid all the rehashes and behind-the-scenes musical chairs, someone decided that Jolie and Depp’s combined star wattage, not to be confused with actual romantic chemistry, would be enough — not only to carry the script through its shopworn duplicitous doings, but to make audiences care in the first place.