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Photograph by Larry Riley

Mr. Annan, Please Hold for Mr. Bolton: Nicole Kidman works at the U.N. in the new thriller 'The Interpreter.'

U.N. Unthriller

Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn heal their wounds while trying to save the world in 'The Interpreter'

By Richard von Busack

THERE MUST HAVE BEEN a point during the creation of the film The Interpreter when it had possibilities. Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa) must have been trying to use a thriller format to show what had happened to the continent since Isak Dinesen left. However, The Interpreter displays all the signs of having been rewritten and rewritten again. So do a lot of movies, but this particular example seems more like a screenwriting version of the old art-school game of Exquisite Corpse. It's as if the newer screenwriter didn't have more than a few lines of what a previous screenwriter had labored on, and thus he took the story into new and more confusing directions. Information gets lost along the way. For example, a very distinctive-looking African terrorist blows up a bus and 17 passengers in Queens, and nobody seems to be keeping an eye out for him after his crime. A few security apparatuses are keeping tabs on a woman's cell phone, but no one seems to notice that she's been having intimate conversations with the secret serviceman who's been guarding her.

Sylvia Broome is a translator at the U.N. who—Hitchcock style—overhears an important conversation regarding the assassination of a visiting African dictator. Her bosses bring in the U.S. Secret Service's visiting Dignitary Protection Squad, including Catherine Keener and Sean Penn. Penn plays an agent named Tobin, distracted by some at-first unspecified loss. Penn has a legitimately bittersweet scene emoting sadness at a cowboy bar in New York City. Dropping his wedding ring in an empty cocktail glass, he takes over the jukebox to make everyone listen to Lyle Lovett's "Pony Song." Despite the vat of heartbreak soup Tobin is supping upon, he's still tough enough to be dubious of the U.N. and its policy of giving tin-pot dictators a place to speak. By contrast, Sylvia is mistrustful of trigger-happy Americans. Together they try to find the assassin, while Sylvia's African brand of healing begins to salve Tobin's American wounds.

Looking at an outline like this, the new screenwriter on the task might wonder, "Why isn't Sylvia a black African?" Then they would learn that Nicole Kidman was playing Sylvia as a wonkette with glasses and untidy blonde-red hair arranged in an overgrown pixie cut with tendrils. Given the traditions that she tells Tobin about from the land of "Matobo" (they sound like the lore of the Island of San Lorenzo in Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle), Kidman has to keep a straight face for a long time. Speaking of faces, Keener has to keep her own handsome profile out of the picture as much as possible, to make sure that we would never think of her as a possible alternative romance for Tobin. But the film isn't really about romance, it's about reparenting. The leads in a thriller used to have sex like adults. Here they practically offer each other warm cups of cocoa. The low-temperature grief counseling is all part of the Quakerizing of this policier with pretensions. You can only blame the atmosphere of mourning and guilt on Sept. 11 and its aftermath. There isn't even much hope to be had from the vistas Pollack shows us of the U.N. building, which here looks like a World's Fair pavilion that someone forgot about.

The Interpreter (PG-13), directed by Sydney Pollack, written by Charles Randolph, Scott Frank and Steven Zaillian, photographed by Darius Khondji and starring Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn and Catherine Keener, opens Friday.

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From the April 20-26, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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