Despite enough glossy local color to choke a horse, stacks of gratuitous slo-mo and a musical score that doesn’t know the word “understatement,” “Original Sin” remains compulsively watchable thanks to leads Antonio Banderas — the only cast member whose accent remains stable from scene to scene — and Angelina Jolie, who vamps and pouts when she’s not pouting and vamping. Lavish and florid, the corny venture falls into so-bad-it’s-good territory. Still, the pic seems destined to draw viewers: It opened in France July 11 (in advance of its Aug. 4 rollout Stateside) to reviews as tepid as yesterday’s cup of java but has performed creditably. Movie’s ancillary career looks to be tasty.
Helmer Michael Cristofer, who directed Jolie in her star-making turn in the HBO-produced “Gia,” scripted his own adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s novel “Waltz Into Darkness,” which Francois Truffaut used in 1969 as the basis for “Mississippi Mermaid.” Latter starred Jean-Paul Belmondo as a tobacco planter whose mail-order bride, played by Catherine Deneuve, turns out to be an impostor. Truffaut’s pic was a commercial flop at the time (and was re-released two years ago in the U.S. in its original European version, which was 13 minutes longer).
In Cristofer’s version, bulk of pic is a flashback narrated by a pious-seeming Jolie, as she tells a credulous priest the elaborate story of how she came to be in prison awaiting her execution at dawn. For the first 15 minutes — and on and off thereafter — characters seem to speak almost exclusively in Aphorism Lite, particularly the mantra: “You can’t walk away from love.”
Wealthy Cuban coffee merchant Luis (Banderas) has chosen his mail order bride Julia Russell, from Delaware (although narration mentions an ad placed in a Baltimore paper), to join him in turn-of-the-century Cuba. He isn’t after beauty or torrid romance, just someone kind and loyal of child-bearing age. And he’s picked an American wife because Cuba, he says, represents “the past.”
Luis plans to meet the boat at 6 a.m., be married at 9, celebrate and go back to work the next morning. But the Julia (Jolie) who seeks him out on the pier is infinitely more attractive than the plain, God-fearing woman whose photo he’s clutching. Julia apologizes for her ruse, claiming she sent another woman’s likeness as she didn’t want to be desired simply because she has a pretty face.
Luis, in turn, admits that, although he’d described himself as a humble clerk in a coffee export firm, he actually owns the company. “We have something in common,” Julia purrs. “We are both not to be trusted.”
So, Banderas bares his buns and Jolie bares her breasts as they make love in a series of tableaux. Luis is deeply, irrevocably smitten. But shadows begin to darken their idyll as discrepancies arise between what Julia wrote during their long-distance courtship and the way she now behaves.
Private detective Walter Downs (Thomas Jane) shows up to investigate, at the behest of Julia’s sister Emily. It looks like Luis was probably unwise to give his bride full access to both his personal and business bank accounts. When, at the half-hour mark, she cleans him out and splits, Luis decides that, although he can’t live without her, he wants to be the one to kill her. Penniless and distraught, he hires Downs to track the wench down.
In an atmosphere of deceit and roiling lust begins a cavalcade of real and faked murder, courtesanship, brinkmanship and subterfuge, gambling, cheating and shameless mugging.
As a rule, Jolie simply has to show up to be sexy, which is what makes this careening display of overripe poutiness seem like a step backward. Banderas alone boasts enough gravitas to put across his role as a pragmatic businessman torn between lust and revenge.
Cristofer fully exploits the sadomasochistic tango of l’amour fou, and the pic is gorgeous (if annoyingly edited). But the filmmakers undercut the results every step of the way with flashy pans, dollies, floating crane shots and incremental jump cuts that make the pic look more like a promo reel of nostalgic coffee commercials than a full-blown noir tale of romantic obsession.