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Sydney Pollack's name on a topical thriller offers no guarantee, but it offers at least a promise. A promise, to be more specific, of tweedy dullness and liberal softness: Havana, The Firm, Absence of Malice, Three Days of the Condor. And was Random Hearts a thriller as well? Hard to tell. (The "essential" Sydney Pollack lies in other directions altogether: Out of Africa, Tootsie, The Way We Were.) So I was looking forward -- not in spite of all that, but honestly because of it -- to The Interpreter, his first film since Random Hearts six years ago, confident that it would be free of the sorts of thrillerish antics I was seeing in the trailer for XXX: State of the Union, the hero leaping from a rooftop onto the undercarriage of a helicopter, a fireball blossoming behind him.

It's true, as I knew from its own trailer, that a bus will be blown up in The Interpreter, but that turns out to be the extent of the pyrotechnics. The pre-credits sequence in Africa, the furthest thing from a James Bond pre-credits sequence, tells us precisely how to adjust our sights: a bit of that indigenous choral chant that proclaims the catholicity of the filmmaker's soul, a gruesome spectacle of slaughtered bodies in the bowels of a tumbledown soccer stadium, and the addition of a couple of new bodies to the pile. We will not be startled to find that the unfolding events take us into the areas of ethnic cleansing, land mines, terrorist bombs, political assassination, and a renewal of faith in the postwar ideals of the United Nations. The not too tricksy plot (I picked out the villain without even thinking) starts out with the tried-and-true device of the Overheard Murder Plot: a U.N. interpreter, returning after hours to her bird's-nest booth above the General Assembly, happens to eavesdrop on a whispered death threat, in the little-known language of Ku, against the visiting president of the mythical nation of Matobo. (Nice touch: a delayed fluorescent light that reveals the eavesdropper to the unseen conspirators, but doesn't tip them off to her presence till they have already spilled the beans.)

Pollack, of course, is a people person, not a gadgets person, and the casting of Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn in the lead roles is your guarantee, not mere promise, of a classy piece of filmmaking. Kidman plays the title character, hiding a dark past on the Dark Continent, a damsel in distress awaiting her white knight ("I'm scared, and my protector is someone who doesn't believe me"); and Penn plays the Secret Service agent on the case, a man half-numbed by the recent death of his wife, and the other half numbed by professional jadedness ("She's a liar"). The role, in both its halves, encourages Penn to underplay, and to let his creased and rumpled face tell a tale. Kidman, on the other hand, has not forgotten how to act (her verbal fencing with Penn strikes some sparks), and yet she has removed herself from the run of humanity in her increasingly exotic, nearly extraterrestrial appearance: thin as a blade of grass, skin as tight as a drum, a curtain of Veronica Lake hair over one eye, a virtual cartoon of a femme fatale. She is now fit for not much more than acting an actress. Catherine Keener is another matter, unafraid to show her age, and therefore eligible for a lead role only in an indie, here relegated to a Secret Service second banana. Still, she has one of the best lines in the film, or best readings thereof: "Well, that's just rude." I won't disclose the context.

Though the tweedy dullness and liberal softness have been delivered in bulk, the lead-up to the exploding bus generates some genuine suspense, with three separate suspects and their Secret Service shadows converging on the same conveyance. ("What's goin' on?" "I don't know, but it don't feel good.") Pollack gets good mileage elsewhere, too, out of the cross-cutting technique employed there. Even if he doesn't get much tension or pace out of it, he at any rate gets complexity. But the best reason to see the film is unquestionably for the cinematography of the Iranian-born Darius Khondji (Delicatessen, Seven, The Ninth Gate, et al.), the smooth, sleek, polished surface of the image, the clean, fresh air within (remarkably so for New York City), the warm, moist, and radiant flesh tones. The best reason to see it, in other words, is simply to see it. You can't ask for less.

House of D, the writing and directing debut of David ("Mulder") Duchovny, is a coming-of-age film of mortifying immaturity. At its outset, Duchovny is an American artist living in Paris, narrating in that flat affect of his, telling us of a secret which he has harbored since his thirteenth birthday, and which he plans shortly to share with his son on the latter's thirteenth birthday. (In the extended flashback to the early Seventies, Duchovny's off-screen wife, Téa Leoni, will play the part of his on-screen mother: something for the Freudians to chew on.) At this juncture in cinema history, the casting of Robin Williams as a "retarded" janitor at St. Andrews School for Boys -- it's a period piece, remember -- gives sufficient grounds to dismiss the film from serious consideration, even without the face-deforming Nutty Professor dentures. (Same as any film, at this juncture, that would cast Christopher Walken or Dennis Hopper as a psycho bad guy.) Given the giggly delight taken in the comic material of asses, balls, boners, peepee, etc., over and above the "childlike" nature of the character, it's easy to see why Williams came to mind for the part. But that's exactly the point, exactly the reason he should have been expelled from mind.

The bathroom humor bumps up against equally low sentimentality: the faceless black woman who imparts sage advice from solitary confinement in the House of Detention, three stories above street level; and the face finally given to her, three decades later, in the present-tense return to the States at the end. And, if anyone still cares by that time, the eventual revelation of the deep dark secret -- not to give too much of it away -- takes a couple of tons of chutzpah, coming as it does within months of Million Dollar Baby. Duchovny, in effect, becomes the real-life equivalent of the string-bean mental defective in the Eastwood film, forever challenging Thomas "Hitman" Hearns to a punch-out. And Eastwood, then, would become the "Hitman."

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