I have to give to "The Interpreter," the latest political thriller from director Sydney Pollack - it tries very, very hard to be intelligent. And it just about makes it despite the inherent flaws in this tense story of assassination, ethnic cleansing and the bad things that happen when you hear something you're not supposed to. That's the conundrum Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman, fragile and beautiful as ever) finds herself in when, while retrieving a bag she left in the sound booth she works in at the United Nations (she's a translator), she overhears a cryptic plot to kill an embattled African dictator. Of course, the whispered machinations are in a rare African dialect called Ku - and, of course, that's one of the several languages Silvia speaks fluently, having once lived in the same nation that is now run by said dictator, a peacenik-turned-despot who is headed to the U.N. to try to save his hide from claims of genocide and possible charges from the war crimes tribunal. That coincidence is the beginning of a twisty plot that is unwound through the eyes a Secret Service agent with the great motion-picture name of Tobin Keller (Sean Penn, haggard) that eventually uncovers that there's more here than just another assassination plot - and more than just another interpreter.
Kudos for Pollack, who has done this before ("Three Days of the Condor," anyone?) for keeping things interesting, for delving into hot-button territory (i.e. Rwanda, Sudan), for expert use of the United Nations building (first time it's ever been used in a movie) and for some good acting, including Catherine Keener in the otherwise-thankless role of Penn's wise-cracking partner. (She has the funniest line in the movie, easily.) Points deducted, however, for some wicked obvious holes in the plot, including an ending that borders on both the obvious and the preposterous, maybe the worst photograph ever used in a big-budget movie (it's real in the flick, but it looks anything but in my eyes), and especially the fact that Pollack and the writers couldn't help but insert the prerequisite sexual tension between Kidman and Penn - a plot point made even more idiotic because of a very recent and very sore spot in Penn's life. Still, I recommend "The Interpreter" because it definitely isn't boring - and it isn't "Guess Who."
2 1/2 stars
P.S. As God is my witness, nearly ever time Kidman opened her mouth and used her clipped South Africanesque accent, I got Meryl Streep in "Out of Africa" in my head. If Kidman had said that she grew up on a farm in Africa, I was storming out of the theater.