Cinematically speaking, there are few things better than a finely-crafted thriller. Unfortunately, said films are also pretty rare--unless you're going to sample Hitchcock's patchy filmography, or lower your standards to Tom Clancy's schlock, you're pretty much out of luck. I mean, the most recent truly great thrillers were made before I was even born: 1975's Three Days of the Condor and 1976's All the President's Men.
Condor's director, Sydney Pollack, revisits the drama/thriller genre with The Interpreter. Silvia (Nicole Kidman) is a translator at the United Nations, and one who believes that despite its often boring stalemates, the U.N.'s mission--to use dialogue to change the world for the better--is a noble one. But Silvia's dedication is tested when she accidentally overhears an ominous assassination plot; paranoia perfunctorily sets in, and Silvia's paired with a reluctant FBI agent, Tobin Keller (Sean Penn).
In The Interpreter's best moments, Pollack channels the verve and momentum of Condor--but more often than not, The Interpreter's unbalanced and jerky. The film slowly teases at the pasts of its characters and hints at possible plot developments, but the uneven screenplay in which the otherwise excellent Pollack, Kidman, and Penn trust is neither fluid nor convincing.
In a few of the film's better moments, Pollack gets down to brass tacks: There's an intense, claustrophobic sequence staged entirely within the confines of a public bus, and when tension mounts for the climax, the last half-hour proves to be pretty damn gripping. It's those smart moments that make this ho-hum film such a disappointment--in far too few scenes, there's action, there's life, and the much-pondered pasts and futures of the characters come to mean something. But afterward, it's usually back to long stretches of negligible talking and questionable personal gains. In other words, The Interpreter's vibe is usually that of a stalemate--which isn't thrilling or dramatic.