Venice, that lovely, lovely and improbable city on the water, serves as the main and, more importantly, mainly as a backdrop for The Tourist, a detail that might seem trivial but gets to the point of where the movie is lacking. Apart from a barefoot, pajamaed man running across roofs, a boat chase, and that we see the characters travelling using the canals, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck doesn’t take advantage of his location in a way that makes it come alive.

So too is the case with the rest of the movie, which boasts Johnny Depp as a hapless American tourist taken as the wrong man, Angelina Jolie as a mysterious woman with a few secrets, a plot that sets police and gangsters hot on the man’s trail, and a frothy attitude toward it all. It’s that attitude, like a beer that’s all head — promising one thing while offering little — that is the primary undoing.

Depp plays Frank Tupelo, a math teacher from Wisconsin, on vacation in Europe after the death of his wife three years prior. He enjoys spy novels, so when Jolie as Elise Clifton-Ward sits across from him on the train from Paris (where, in the prologue, the police engage in a surveillance operation that suggests they’re trained by watching Inspector Clouseau marathons), he can only imagine the reason and does out-loud at her request. He also takes up her offer for dinner, after a discussion of the proper way to ask a woman to dinner without actually asking or seeming to forceful.

In Venice, Elise maintains the charade that Frank is her husband, which is bad for him, since the man she loves is named Alexander Pearce, who has stolen over two billion dollars from a mob boss (Steven Berkoff) and has Scotland Yard on his trail. Acheson (Paul Bettany), the man from the Yard in charge of hunting down Pearce, learns Frank’s real identity, but the mobster only knows what his goons see (which they do by hiding in plain sight and looking very suspicious in a gondola or on the street across from Elise and Frank’s hotel). They think he’s Pearce after Elise kisses him.

The cops and the thugs are an odd bunch, presented as jokes (principally the former) but played as legitimate threats (particularly the latter). The inconsistency places a lot of strain on pursuit and how seriously we’re meant to take it, especially after the opening sequence in Paris where the police follow immediately behind Elise in a big, black van with a domed camera on top and an undercover agent arrests a man right in front of her. A letter she receives from Pearce states that he knows the cops are trailing her, but then again, so would everyone in Paris with a working set of eyes. The ineptitude is played at least once as a legitimate joke at the train station in Italy, when the Interpol agents get their assignment over earpieces from a man tens of feet away from them and move in obvious formation.

Meanwhile, Frank and Elise undergo the routine sexual angst of two in love at first sight with so many obstacles in their way. There’s little to the roles, so it’s almost forgivable that the performances are a tad somnambulistic. After all, these are types and, for looks alone, Depp and Jolie fit the bill. Depp’s performance might be too subtle for its own good, the bumbling wrong-man type appearing in the sprint across the roofs in his pajamas and a few well-timed puffs on his electronic cigarette when the dialogue starts to get a little too serious; the rest is smooth and knowing. Jolie is exactly right, as are the turns of the head of every male extra she passes.

The identity of Pearce and his elaborate schemes behind the scenes are central. Rufus Sewell appears several times as an ordinary Englishman at the right place with important information for Elise, and he might as well wear a sign that says “red herring.” Otherwise, Pearce’s manipulations are strangely unimportant to the plot, leading up to a fancy ball where, just as Elise might track down her man, a dance breaks out.

Pearce, of course, couldn’t and didn’t plan that, although The Tourist relies on Elise meeting Frank on the train. It becomes clear as the movie progresses that, out of all the men on board, she had to choose Frank, which means the entire plot depends on pure, dumb luck, or Pearce’s influence reaches further than could be believed.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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