The Interpreter, starring Nicole Kidman as an African-born translator at the United Nations and Sean Penn as a Secret Service agent mourning a recently dead estranged wife, would be nothing without Pollack's usual polish. It's a facile shrug of a thriller about an assassination plot, and it's told almost entirely in flashback; everything that happens in the present -- which isn't much -- has to be explained again and again, not to explicate the onion layers of deceit common to political thrillers but merely to reiterate the numbingly obvious. Ask the simplest questions, and the movie falls apart. Only Kidman, as the woman who overhears plans to kill a beloved African liberator turned murderous dictator named Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), and Penn, as the skeptic sent to investigate her claim, keep us interested.
Kidman, channeling Meryl Streep, plays Silvia Broome, a woman with a past that keeps revealing itself in Photoshopped pics that show up at the most inopportune moments. Though she claims hers are the politics of "peace and quiet," snapshots of a younger Silvia reveal that she was once a gun-toting rebel prone to attending the rallies of a hunky freedom fighter named Xola (Curtiss Cook), a former lover. Such revelations, which trickle out as the movie creeps toward its inevitable showdown, render her claims of eavesdropping those deadly whispers all the more dubious. She, too, has a vested interest in seeing Zuwanie, her old hero, popped in front of the U.N. General Assembly.
Tobin Keller (Penn), assigned to investigate, doesn't buy her story. Silvia strikes him as a woman with too many secrets. "But it's a credible threat," he tells his higher-ups, who include Pollack himself, again making a cameo in his own movie, à la Hitchcock, whose work this movie tries hard to emulate without matching its dark humor. (Only Catherine Keener, as Penn's partner, a Secret Service agent assigned to keep strippers' hands off visiting prime ministers, bares her teeth in a shark's smile.) Tobin and Silvia dance around each other, sharing secrets and war stories like lovers who know they'll never even get to kiss. The story that swirls around them, involving righteous rebels and dead families and busybody ghosts, never meshes into a coherent, affecting whole.
Pollack is working from a screenplay penned in part by Steven Zaillian (Gangs of New York, Schindler's List) and Scott Frank (Out of Sight, Get Shorty), with other writers credited as well, and the movie plays like a messy hodgepodge of moods, ideas, politics and emotions. It centers on the assassination of Zuwanie while he's in New York to explain that he's a good guy and not a dictator engaging in ethnic cleansing, but it spins off in too many directions to keep us from noticing how nothing makes a lick of sense.
When something tangible happens in the present, the movie is briefly thrilling. The sight of a masked man on Silvia's fire escape delivers a proper jolt, and a scene aboard a Brooklyn bus, where a would-be assassin carrying more than his lunch bumps into Silvia and the feds and yet another of Zuwanie's enemies, is at once wrenching and comic. But The Interpreter dashes the suspense by talking the audience to death. The action gives way, time and again, to the inaction of people explaining why they're there and how they got there and why they're not leaving, which isn't thrilling at all.