Syd’s Interpreter: Say What?!

As a detour from the beaten paths of stupidity and boredom that have come to symbolize contemporary filmmaking in general, a new thriller with Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, directed by the crafty and polished Sydney Pollack, automatically gets the adrenalin going. So what a disappointment when The Interpreter turns out to be so muddled, dreary and preposterous. In this movie that aims to cash in on today’s hysterical fear of terrorism, even the terrorists are confused. It’s great to get an inside tour of the United Nations, where a lot of the movie was filmed, but for an international territory surrounded by the tightest security on the planet, this is a U.N. where simply everybody comes and goes at all hours carrying state-of-the-art weapons without a single alarm. After the entire U.N. is evacuated following a terrorist alert, a pretty young interpreter (Nicole Kidman) returns to the dark and empty control booth overlooking the General Assembly to get her backpack and her flute, and not a single metal detector rings a bell. Worse still, the interpreter overhears a secret plot to assassinate a South African dictator over an open mike-and, as irony would have it, she’s the only one at the U.N. who can understand the language of the intended victim, because he is from the same region in South Africa where her family was murdered. By the same villain, natch.

Wait a sec. An open mike at the U.N.? The entire security staff out of the building for a smoke following a terrorist threat? This all happens in the first 15 minutes. The credibility factor goes downhill from there. While you’re scratching your head in a suspension of logic, you at least get to watch the lovely Nicole stalked, chased, threatened in the shower and on the verge of many perilous predicaments while speaking myriad languages. She does all of this, by the way, while trying to bring down an African demagogue who is guilty of mass genocide, and is on his way to New York to address the U.N. General Assembly and clear his name by promising democratic reforms and free elections.

Sean Penn and his sidekick, Catherine Keener, are the Secret Service team assigned to protect visiting dignitaries (thus explaining why the traffic is always clogged within a 10-block radius of the East River when the U.N. is in session). Now they find they have to keep an eye on the attractive blond interpreter, too. With at least three different groups of terrorists vowing to knock her off, this is a girl who spells trouble in 20 different languages. Under investigation herself (she used to be a gun-toting South African rebel whose hatred of the visiting dictator is well documented) and used by the Secret Service as bait to lure the terrorists out in the open, she’s in double jeopardy, and there’s a knife or a machine gun during every New York minute, including a take on the shower scene from Psycho. The movie maintains a certain tension as long as it’s about a pretty girl in trouble in broad daylight. But when all of the terrorists arrive at cross purposes, killing each other for different causes, incoherence reigns. Then there’s the army of tangential characters-a French photographer with the names of all of the people massacred in South Africa, a doctor who works in an AIDS hospice, Ms. Kidman’s murdered brother-and an intense showdown between all of the conspirators trying to assassinate each other on a crowded bus in Brooklyn. By the time Mr. Penn ends up pointing a gun at Ms. Kidman while she points another gun at the head of the African dictator-again in a top-security room at the U.N. with no metal detectors-you will have no choice but to surrender all claims to reason and wonder who does Nicole Kidman’s hair.

Under such daunting circumstances, The Interpreter is slick. The script, by Charles Randolph, Scott Frank and Steven Zaillian, contains some arresting talk about global corruption, the death of diplomacy and the hopelessness of political idealism. And the two stars knock themselves sideways to breathe life into cardboard clichés. Working with a South African accent that sometimes gets in her way, Ms. Kidman is cool, courageous and all about the power of words. Mr. Penn is such a resourceful actor that even though he’s playing a stock role, he invests it with emotional minutiae that forms fascinating conflicts; he’s all about rules and fists, but the loss of his wife in a car accident with another man has driven him to fear, loneliness and a state of cynicism that is the opposite of the girl’s optimism. His disillusionment and her hope for world peace make interesting counterparts. Unfortunately, the film makes nothing of their budding mutual attachment and leaves them stranger than when they met.

At the press screening I attended, the critics were standing around in groups trying to figure out what they had just seen. None of it, we were forced to concede, made much sense. What The Interpreter needs is an interpreter.

Hellhouse

The Amityville Horror marks a cheesy return visit to Long Island’s most famous haunted house. If you were unlucky enough to suffer through the lousy 1979 version with Margot Kidder and the pre-Barbra James Brolin, you know the story about a creepy old house at 112 Ocean Avenue where a 23-year-old wacko claimed voices from his TV test pattern told him to climb the stairs and butcher his entire family in their beds with a shotgun. One year later, a nice couple named George and Kathy Lutz moved into the house with their dog and three kids after buying it for a bargain-basement price. About that basement: Even the realtor refused to descend those stairs. “Houses don’t kill people,” said Mr. Lutz bravely, “people kill people.” In the 28 days before they fled the house paralyzed with fright, their daughter bonded with an imaginary playmate who drove her to dangle from the roof, blood poured through the water faucets, Mr. Lutz chopped the dog to tartare, the priest who arrived to bless and sanctify the house with holy water was attacked by killer insects, and every Lutz met the face of Satan in the gateway to hell. It makes a good yarn, even if it seems more predictable than frightening.

Trouble is, times have changed. Yes, a violent tragedy in 1974 did put Amityville on the map and tourists with digital cameras still do drive-bys, looking for photo ops. But the facts about the Lutz family have been hugely contested and disproved since the 1970′s, and the prime market value of the remodeled Dutch Colonial with the inviting dormers at 112 Ocean Avenue is considered anything but low-end real estate. Sigh. Today, even the ghouls have inflated price tags.

Hollywood must be desperate. They’re recycling schlock from the bottom halves of old double features, even crummy TV shows. What’s next, The Fog and House of Wax? Actually, they’re both on the way. But for now, let’s get Amityville out of the way. In the remake, hunky, camera-ready Ryan Reynolds proves he’s got acting chops as well as six-pack abs. His George Lutz has humor as well as strangeness, and his fetish for chopping wood using a hatchet with a mind of its own gets the audience going every time. Melissa George’s Kathy Lutz is distracting eye candy. After Mr. Reynolds floats nude in a blood-soaked bathtub, she’s the only one who actually suggests they move out. A few lines get laughs, but the horror is standard fare, without a shred of innovation. Mr. Reynolds is too much like a refugee from a Men’s Health cover to be believable as an ordinary daddy with mortgage payments and muffler repairs, and by the time he gets around to chasing the children through the house with an ax, dazed and simpering moronically and hypnotized by ghosts, you wonder how many times everyone has rented The Shining with Jack Nicholson. This may not be a good movie, but it’s a pretty persuasive ad for homeowner’s insurance.

Do Go to God

The only real horror on movie screens this week is weirdo director Todd Solondz’s obscenely juvenile Palindromes, a noxious pretense about a 13-year-old girl named Aviva who wants to get pregnant and will endure any outrage, no matter how humiliating, to give birth. Aviva is played by eight different people, including a boy, an obese black girl and 43-year-old Jennifer Jason Leigh. Aviva practices with dolls and baby bottles and soiled diapers, but her mother (Ellen Barkin) drags her off to the doctor who performs her abortion. Aviva runs away from home in the back of a cross-country 16-wheeler with a truck driver who rapes her and abandons her in a roadside coffee shop. In one sordid chapter after another, the different Avivas, who come in all sizes and colors, pass themselves off as Henrietta, the name of Aviva’s aborted fetus. This hapless child makes a pit stop in the house of a religious nut named Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk) who collects tortured and maimed orphans, claiming her parents were killed in the attacks of 9/11. For amusement, the children visit a garbage dump where a nearby abortion clinic dumps the bloody fetuses and give the blood-soaked plastic bags a Christian burial. Before she can escape Mama Sunshine, she meets up again with her white-trash truck-driving felon lover who, posing as her father, takes her back to New Jersey to aid him in his mission to blow up the abortion clinic run by the doctor who was hired by Aviva’s mother in the first place. Ironies never cease, but in this movie you find yourself praying that the projector will.

An alleged “comedy” about pedophilia, child promiscuity, born-again Christians and nihilism, Palindromes is as amusing as lung cancer. Casting so many different people in the same role is a conceit as pretentious as the film’s title, but it’s simultaneously at odds with the film’s theme-that nobody ever changes, no matter how many superficial changes they pretend to embrace. “You can have a sex change,” said Mr. Solondz in his Q. and A. session after Palindromes was booed at the Toronto International Film Festival, “but you remain the same person inside.” Busting taboos and shocking his audiences senseless for the sheer sake of controversy, this is the filmmaker responsible for the disgusting scene in Happiness where the boy masturbates, the dog feasts on the remains, then licks everyone in the mouth at the Thanksgiving dinner table. A seriously sick sister, if you ask me. Palindromes is Lolita remade by John Waters. “Palindrome” is a word or phrase that is spelled the same, backwards or forwards, like Anna, Ulu or, of course, Aviva. Uproariously insisting that he’s one of the few filmmakers today who can be called “a true original,” the delusional Mr. Solondz raised eyebrows in Toronto declaring that although there are many famous directors and films in the past, he has never been influenced by any of them. One only hopes future filmmakers will feel the same way about him.