Twist endings are a tricky proposition. When executed successfully, they give the film a bravura finish that will have people talking for years to come. But that’s rare. More often than not, they leave the audience confused and frustrated. The Tourist is a charming albeit forgettable trifle of a film that chooses to throw an unnecessary and maddeningly stupid twist at the audience. It’s a twist ending that not only blows up in the movie’s face, but blows it’s face clean off, turning a pretty veneer into a mangled pile of “Are you kidding me?’ and “That makes no goddamned sense.”
The film begins with the financial crimes unit of Scotland Yard trailing Elise Ward (Angelina Jolie), the most beautiful, confident, and well-attired woman in the world. Possessing the beauty of a goddess and a look that screams “I will never have sex with you,” Elise is trying to throw the cops off her trail so that they’ll stop chasing her husband, Alexander Pierce, a mob banker who stole billions from his boss. The British government is in on the chase because 744 million of that amount belonged to them (why the mobster has that money is never explained). Despite their surveillance, Pierce is still easily able to communicate with Elise through letters and he informs her that she needs to find a stranger with his height and build so that the cops (who don’t know what Pierce looks like) will trail the poor stranger. It’s an elaborate set-up for what seems like a minor diversion.
On a train from Paris to Venice, Elise chooses her stooge by sitting across from Frank (Johnny Depp), Wisconsin’s handsomest yet charmingly-befuddled community college math teacher. Frank is, naturally, beguiled by the mysterious Elise but it turns out that the cops aren’t the only one after Pierce. The mobster (Steven Berkoff) and his goons are also chasing down Pierce and because of a case of mistaken identity, they’re now after poor Frank. It’s a charming premise that begins to lose steam as director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck seems more interested in capturing the beauty of Venice rather than developing the characters or devising exciting chase scenes.
But up until the twist, The Tourist is a satisfactory diversion. While the visuals make The Tourist ultimately feel more like a tourism video for Venice (provided you’re ridiculously wealthy) than an attempt to better tell the story, Depp and Jolie acquit themselves well at their roles. Jolie’s confidence is staggering and you can see the joy Elise takes in grabbing an entire room’s attention with nothing more than a grin. It’s also nice to see Depp playing an everyman rather than the bizarre outsider he usually portrays. Frank is a charming character and he gets solid laughs every time he speaks Spanish as if it were Italian.
And then the film makes its twist and ruins just about everything that came before. I’m going to have spoil what happens in order to explain why it’s so bad, so if you’re still interested in seeing the movie, please stop reading now.
Okay, so here’s the twist: Pierce is actually Frank. Midway through the film, we learn that Elise is actually working for the financial crimes unit but has been suspended. She was working undercover in order to reveal the financial misdeeds being conducted by Pierce on the behalf of the mob, but instead she ended up falling for him. At the end of the film, Frank reveals to Elise that he’s actually Pierce. And since he’s got the money, the two get away with it.
The twist makes no sense. Even if we assume that Elise doesn’t know Frank is Pierce until the end of the movie (and it’s possible she could have known from the beginning when you consider how poorly the twist is implemented and explained), his actions make no sense. In order to avoid the cops, he puts himself and Elise in the crosshairs of the mob. Furthermore, their behavior towards each other is inexplicable. “Frank” is trying to woo Elise so Pierce is actually testing his wife’s love even though she cares for him enough to follow any instructions he sends her and doesn’t seem to care about her career or that he’s a thief. The twist turns Frank from a lovable everyman caught in larger-than-life circumstances to a manipulative schemer who was playing everyone from the start.
Perhaps we could derive a modicum of pleasure from Frank’s deceit if we saw how he was pulling the strings the whole time. Most movies with a twist ending like to show you how clever they are and will cut back to all the clues showing that you should have figured it out from the start, you gigantic dummy. The Tourist doesn’t even bother. Instead, Elise makes a quip about Pierce’s new face, and they set sail with all the money they stole. No flashbacks or even a cursory argument of how Pierce chose to deceive her and make her his puppet. In the end, Frank’s a liar, Elise is corrupt, they get rich off stolen cash, the cops decide to drop the case, and they all lived happily ever after. That’s not a bad ending for a biting satire on post financial-crisis America, but it’s a miserable way to close out what’s mostly a light-hearted romantic thriller.