Monday, March 16, 2009

World Weary: The International

I have no idea what The International is about. I mean, I do. I understand that its plot centers on an Interpol agent and an assistant district attorney from New York who are investigating the illicit practices of a multinational bank that deals in weapons and coups in order to profit from the inevitable debt of war. That makes sense. Where I get lost is in trying to determine why someone thought this would make for a scintillating movie – beyond providing an excuse to stage an elaborate shootout in the Guggenheim Museum, that is. Starring Clive Owen, Naomi Watts and some picturesque cityscapes from around the world, The International dresses itself up as something worthy of our attention, but as with Faberge eggs or Ryan Seacrest, there’s no substance beyond the style. Even worse, there isn’t much style.

It’s the last part that cuts deepest. The International is directed by Tom Tykwer, who in 1998 burst into the American consciousness with the electric fight for love that is Run, Lola, Run and who recently directed one of the three most memorable vignettes of Paris, Je t’aime, plus the overlooked (if far from perfect) Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer. In these instances, Tykwer’s compositions have been vibrant and evocative if not always grand. Here it’s something of the reverse. Armed with what must be the biggest budget of his career, Tykwer cashes in with some striking long-shots of Lyon, Milan and Istanbul, to name a few, but his architectural ogling fails to achieve emotional resonance. Saddled with a muddled and limp screenplay by Eric Singer that is aching for an infusion of Tykwer’s unhinged virtuosity, the director plays it safe precisely when he should take a chance, coming off like a filmmaker desperate to prove to the Hollywood suits that he can button up and march to orders.

The result isn’t a tragic film – The International is too blah to be truly offensive – it’s a missed opportunity. Singer’s screenplay is so marginally interesting, so lacking in personality and so reliant upon clichés that The International might never have been more than just OK. Still, few filmmakers have proved as adept as Tykwer at getting a lot out of a little. His 5-minute Paris, Je t’aime chapter plays in memory as if it must be three times that length, given all the story that his hyper editing manages to pack into it. Run, Lola, Run, meanwhile, is notable for repeatedly covering the same ground over its 80 minutes without ever failing to reinvent the material. By contrast, nothing about The International feels inventive or even energetic. The Guggenheim shootout is compelling in the way it takes a tranquil environment and reveals it to be fit for a cinematic showdown, thrillingly repurposing the landmark the way Alfred Hitchcock did with Mt. Rushmore in North By Northwest. But even that showstopper is somewhat of a disappointment. When the highest compliment I can extend to the choreography of the Guggenheim sequence is to give thanks to what it isn’t – an overly chaotic brain freeze shot by Paul Greengrass and edited by Christopher Nolan – it suggests to me that kudos belong mostly to Frank Lloyd Wright.

I’d like to believe that Tykwer’s urban panoramas amount to more than architecture porn, but I fail to find a much deeper meaning. In North By Northwest, the location-hopping has the effect of establishing (and then reestablishing) Roger Thornhill’s vulnerability. Cary Grant’s Thornhill goes from being an anonymous ant in New York’s concrete jungle to being the target of a nefarious operation so widespread that he cannot escape it by plane, train or automobile. It seems Tykwer would like to believe that his frequent shots of towering buildings similarly demonstrate how the International Bank for Business and Credit (IBBC) has the entire globe in an anaconda-like squeeze. Trouble is, The International works against itself, putting a far from magnificent face on its otherwise anonymous evil, thereby neutering the potency of both. (We’re supposed to tremble at Ulrich Thomsen’s Jonas Skarssen? Really?)

What the globetrotting and location-worshiping of The International is in fact designed to do is to confuse the audience into believing that interesting visuals equate an interesting plot and that moving the story geographically is the same thing as advancing it dramatically. It isn’t. The Bourne movies have made a habit of setting their action in tour-guide-worthy locales, but in those instances the exotic locations are the icing on the cake. Jason Bourne will run over rooftops in his frantic pursuits regardless, so he might as well run over rooftops in scenic Tangier; it’s a win-win. Strip away the lush vistas and we’d still watch Bourne run. Not so with The International, in which the icing is spread on thick in hopes of obscuring the blandness of Singer’s cake. In this film, what’s interesting to look at is the only thing that is interesting.

The rule extends to the cast, too. Owen and Watts provide a combination of swagger and sexiness that camouflages their characters’ insipidness. As dull as The International often is, it would be even worse with recent Oscar nominees Richard Jenkins and Melissa Leo in the starring roles, which isn’t as misplaced an observation as you might think. After all, Owen’s Louis Salinger is supposed to be some kind of office man, according to the plot, which I think means that he wouldn’t be the type to pick up a discarded Uzi and reflexively provide cover fire during the Guggenheim sequence. But maybe that’s the way desk guys at Interpol roll. In any case, Salinger is about as action-heroic as they get, right down to the pet babe at his heels who doesn’t have any responsibilities beyond looking pretty and being someone with whom Salinger can exchange inane dialogue. To Tykwer’s credit (I think), the director makes every effort to make Watts relevant, but eventually it becomes ridiculous. In one late scene, Tykwer repeatedly cuts away from a Salinger interrogation of Armin Mueller-Stahl’s Wilhelm Wexler – as scintillating a piece of drama as there is in the entire film – to show Watts’ Eleanor Whitman observing the action through a small window. “Yes,” the cutaways silently scream, “Naomi Watts is still in this movie!”

Now that I think about it, maybe silent screaming is the way to go, because overt communication is hardly The International’s strength. Singer’s screenplay includes cliché groaners like “What was that back there?” and “Don’t talk to me about procedure and protocol!” and “Make sure he wasn’t killed for nothing!” Its “dramatic” conclusion includes the inside man sneaking away from the villain at Istanbul’s ancient Souleymaniye Mosque by asking, “Is there a bathroom I can use?” Of course, even that isn’t as preposterous as the story’s one-legged assassin who knows to turn away from security cameras but fails to realize that wearing a designer prosthetic that leaves (you guessed it!) a distinct and rare footprint might not be such a hot idea. Then again, maybe the assassin was trying to make a bold statement, which is more than I can say for Tykwer.


The Film Doctor said...

I haven't seen The International, but I have great critical respect for Run, Lola, Run and Tykwer's Paris, Je t'aime chapter, so I wonder if the director felt overwhelmed by studio pressures. He's only 44 years old! Surely, he can regain his artistic credibility.

Jason Bellamy said...

Absolutely he can. The International doesn't feel like Tykwer selling his soul. It just feels like him getting in a safe one, in the hopes that he'll get big money again to do something he really wants. In the long run, this could be a brilliant tactical move. In the meantime, however, this is a film that could use the punch that I know from experience Tykwer has in him. In that way, it's a major disappointment.

Craig said...

I think I liked this a little more than you, albeit not enough to mount an impassioned defense. We do seem to agree that the most significant weaknesses are the characterizations in the script, which lead to a nondescript performance from Naomi Watts and an atypically poor one from Clive Owen. I did enjoy Tykwer's direction -- his elegant pacing and compositions -- for at least the first hour, up through the famed Guggenheim shootout. He channels some serious Hitchcockian mojo in the opening assassination scene as well as another shooting early on -- which is so well-timed and -staged it made me laugh. The movie loses interest and peters out, but overall I see it as a promising foray into commercial moviemaking and I hope he tries again.

Daniel said...

For as many people who love Run Lola Run, I'm ever surprised that nobody ever mentions Tykwer's The Princess and the Warrior, which I loved nearly as much. Highly recommended.

Regarding The International, well I unloaded whatever I had to say about it in a comment on another site the day after I saw it, and I've tried to forget about it ever since. This a dead-on critique, and I love the idea about Salinger as an office guy.

I just can't believe that drama was attempted at moments like the interrogation scene or the underground eavesdropping or, worst of all, the text messaging exchange between Watts and the other guy's wife. I was on the edge of my seat - about to leave.

And almost nothing can forgive a disguise as cliched as Owen's in the last scene - sunglasses AND a travel guide book.

Joel Bocko said...

Wonderfully sharp review - I haven't seen The International and don't intend to, but you nonetheless pulled me into reading the whole piece. In short, like the one-legged assassin, and unlike Tykwer, you made a bold impression. Keep up the good work.