Why The Tourist Bombed

Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp, a hot director—The Tourist had it all. Nicole LaPorte on how this unlikely Golden Globe nominee became a joke and a bomb.

01.13.11 10:38 PM ET

Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp, a hot director— The Tourist had it all. Nicole LaPorte on how this unlikely Golden Globe nominee became a joke and a bomb.

When Angelina Jolie heard that she had been nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance in the $100 million dud The Tourist, she laughed. And at this Sunday’s Globes ceremony, Johnny Depp, Jolie’s co-star in the film, will be keeping his distance from the movie, sitting not with Sony (which marketed and distributed The Tourist), but with the folks at Disney, in honor of his less-mocked performance as Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland.

By now it has been well-established that The Tourist was one of last year’s more stinging embarrassments. Released to buckets of hype (Angelina and Johnny!!) and anticipation, the film—a “twist movie” about a hapless visitor to Venice (Depp) who becomes entangled in the cryptic affairs of an international spy (Jolie)—has grossed just $61 million at the domestic box office. Critics were merciless. “This woefully botched mystery-adventure-thriller-caper-romance-comedy, or whatever it was meant to be, is no fun at all,” wrote Joe Morgenstern in The Wall Street Journal. The film’s Rotten Tomatoes score is 20 percent—one less than Gulliver’s Travels.

But for all of the unkind things people have been saying about The Tourist—that it’s a thriller with no thrills; that it’s a plot-less excuse to get Jolie and Depp on screen together; that it falls into humorless camp—no one has really explained just what went so horribly wrong. How is it that a movie with two stars whose every eye-blink ignites the fan magazine presses, could veer so wildly off the rails?

Based on conversations with numerous individuals familiar with the film’s production—all of whom insisted on talking anonymously—the making of The Tourist was a playbook of mishaps; a veritable Movie Gone Wild. The tales are so crazy that it seems to lend itself to hyperbole. “Sixteen to 17” writers were called in to work on the script!, crowed one person. In fact, there were six.

What is no exaggeration is that a confluence of elements conspired against the film, from a rushed schedule; to a star who insisted on covering up his striking profile with facial hair suggestive of a Bonsai experiment; to a director who had never worked on a big-budget studio movie with A-list actors.

“The director, unfortunately, had absolutely no control over his stars,” said one source. “The script started out with more edge, but for whatever reason, the stars got to do what some stars do, and unfortunately, this director was not in the driver’s seat.”

“This director” would be Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the German filmmaker who won a Best Foreign Language Oscar for his acclaimed 2006 film The Lives of Others. Von Donnersmarck, who studied at Oxford, is no inexperienced kid, but he’d never had to operate within the Hollywood machine; indeed, The Lives of Others, a gripping film about life under Stasi oppression in East Germany, is in every way, shape, and form, the antithesis of The Tourist. He is hardly the first foreign director to stumble when thrown onto a major, American production. Ang Lee, who won an Oscar for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, went on to make the misguided Hulk. And after making Delicatessan, Jean-Pierre Jeunet missed with Alien Resurrection.

It was Jolie (per a recommendation from Brad Pitt) who personally wooed von Donnersmarck to take on The Tourist, hoping to imbue the film with more of a European sensibility—she wanted “somebody very sophisticated,” she told The New York Times. The actress also fought for Von Donnersmarck, when, early on, financer-producer Graham King disagreed with him over the film’s creative direction, leading Von Donnersmarck to briefly fall off the project, according to more than one source. At Jolie’s insistence, he was brought back on.

“The director, unfortunately, had absolutely no control over his stars,” said one source.

King declined to comment for this story. As did Von Donnersmarck, Depp, and Jolie (and their reps), but a source close to the director said that the idea that Jolie and Depp’s influence played a part in making The Tourist seem more in the service of its stars (almost every shot feels like a Vogue photo shoot) than its story, is false.

“I don’t think Florian would say that,” this person said. “To just make a generic thriller was not what he was interested in doing. He was interested in making a movie that was about elegance and the glamour of stars. It was not supposed to be a hard-edged thriller. He wanted to make a style piece. That may have been a miscalculation.”

The Tourist is based on the 2005 French spy thriller Anthony Zimmer. What is fact regarding the U.S. version is that it started off as a North by Northwest-style caper for Tom Cruise. Originally written by Julian Fellowes ( Gosford Park, Downton Abbey), Christopher McQuarrie ( The Usual Suspects) was hired to work with Cruise, who then left the project, and was replaced by Sam Worthington, who also fell off. Charlize Theron also came and went. Later, when Jolie and Von Donnersmarck became involved, and then Depp, the script was heavily reworked—primarily by Von Donnersmarck—so that the finished film feels more like a prolonged Chanel No. 5 commercial. There are endless shots of Jolie, clad in an ever-changing wardrobe of ballroom gowns and diamond chokers, staring wistfully out at the Venice canals. The two “chase” scenes involve Depp clumsily scrambling across a rooftop in his pajamas, and Jolie cruising along in her yacht at tugboat speed.

Also introduced in the rewriting were sudden bursts of humor, so that midway through the film, it is unclear whether or not what’s on the screen is a serious drama or a hammy comedy.

When asked by The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy blog about his reworking of The Tourist script, Von Donnersmarck said, “I found it hard to direct something that I hadn’t written, so I had to at least rewrite it and make it my own, so I would know what to ask the actors to do… It’s certainly fun to bounce ideas around with other people, but there’s a certain purity of vision that can come only if everything is done by one person… If there are several people involved, sometimes you go to a common denominator, which has its advantages for certain projects. For The Tourist, I think it was right. But if it’s a deep, soul-searching project, you can’t be searching three people’s souls at the time.”

Some things were completely out of the director’s control. The Tourist began shooting just under a year ago, and was incredibly rushed due to Jolie’s schedule. Meanwhile, it had to be released by the end of the year, per a clause in Depp’s contract that says his films can not be released too closely together—because Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is coming out next May, The Tourist had to give it room to breathe. Reports that the film’s December release date was to tie in with Oscar season were false.

Nor could anyone fight the fact that audiences are accustomed to seeing, and loving, Jolie and Depp in a certain way—i.e., as an ass-kicking vixen, and an offbeat, yet debonair, heartthrob. Depp’s decision to go with “the beard,” as one person put it (it is more like an artfully crafted goatee-beard hybrid), which concerned both von Donnersmarck and King, did not go over well with Jack Sparrow fans.

“When you have Johnny Depp, either Johnny needs to be wearing green eyeshadow, or he needs to be a dashing movie star—he can do either of those things brilliantly,” said one industry source. “He was neither in this movie. And Angelina Jolie, if you look at her filmography, the films that do well are the ones in which she’s not wearing much clothing, and wields some sort of weapon. In this movie, she wasn’t wielding any weapons, and she was drenched in clothing.”

The much-ridiculed Globes nomination not withstanding, The Tourist is actually starting the year off more brightly than it closed 2009. Overseas, the film has already crossed the $100 million mark, even before opening in major territories such as Japan. In fact, both Sony and King, who put up all of the film’s financing, are likely to make a modest profit.

Though it’s unlikely that anything can redeem its reputation on these shores.

“I think it was all the anticipation, plus schadenfreude,” said one source. “I think there’s a lot of that. It’s a tough town.”

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Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.