The best intentions have a way of producing the worst movies.
''The Interpreter," a righteous but wrongheaded thriller, chokes on its well-meant outrage and leaves a moth-eaten plot and handful of nonsense characters on its way to a dopey finish. This is a Hollywood potboiler, with Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman, about African genocide that's set in and around the real United Nations headquarters.
As directed by Sydney Pollack, the estimable man behind ''Tootsie," ''Out of Africa," and ''The Firm," the movie is so slick that it should probably be out chasing ambulances instead of preaching in multiplexes.
This is one of those pictures whose intrigue is bound up in the nightmares of a little, made-up country whose fictional status is meant to say something sweeping about injustice while giving the filmmakers license to do whatever they want on its soil. The pseudo-republic is a southern African hotbed called Matobo, a land with political crises that are an ambiguous stew of the troubles plaguing several actual African nations: ethnic cleansing roiling under a tyrant's nose. (Matobo happens to be the name of Zimbabwe's national park.)
The fictitious country's plight comes into our view when a faulty metal detector forces a complete evacuation of the UN. Hours later, Silvia Broome (Kidman), an African-born translator who happens to be fluent in the Matoban dialect of Ku, goes back to fetch a bag she left in a sound booth. There she overhears what she believes is a plot to assassinate Matobo's leader, President Edmund Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), who is on his way in to give a redemption speech intended to save himself from prosecution for crimes against humanity.
Needless to say, Silvia is spotted, and as the plot thickens her life is in ever-worsening jeopardy. You know the drill: mysterious phone calls, mysterious break-ins at her homey-chic apartment, a mysterious black town car hounding poor Silvia on her Vespa along clogged Manhattan avenues.
But for all this mysteriousness, little is more mysterious than Silvia herself. Eventually, she's placed in the protective custody of Secret Service agent Tobin Keller (Penn), who almost immediately begins digging around in Silvia's past and turns up one incriminating tidbit after the next. There she is marching with the rebel leader Ajene Xola (Curtiss I'Cook) in what looks like a picture that was doctored in Photoshop, but never mind: Something doesn't wash about this woman.
Once she demands that an agent drive her out to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where she hops on a bus with another anti-Zuwanie leader, ''The Interpreter" loses its mind and never quite recovers it. (Nicole Kidman waiting for the bus is the stuff of science fiction.)
Still, that sequence is Pollack at his most muscularly suspenseful. You know it's strong because even after it's over and none of it makes sense, you're still aware of how riveted you have been.
But the movie has a lot of explaining to do, and none of its alibis are all that persuasive. The screenplay is credited to Steve Zaillian, Scott Frank, and Charles Randolph, three men who have a mixed bag of titles among them, including ''Schindler's List," ''Out of Sight," and the execrable ''Life of David Gale," respectively. Presumably, they didn't collaborate, and even if they did the movie seems piecemeal, particularly where Penn's character is concerned.
Agent Keller is that grieving, skeptical yet dutiful agent we've seen so many times before. He's mourning the loss of his ex-wife, but only because the character needs to be sympathetic enough that we don't feel too manipulated when he holds Silvia in his lap after she confesses her own bereavement. Aside from some occasionally prickly banter, Penn has nothing interesting to do with Kidman or with Catherine Keener, who turns up as his partner, sporting her typical arid sarcasm and some unusually ill-fitting pantsuits.
Casting Kidman is the movie's only great stroke of inspiration -- up to a point. She wears mystery as naturally as Marilyn Monroe wore her mole. Her milkiness and opacity serve her well here. The less we know about Silvia (her political, familial, and sexual past) the sharper the performance is. But once the movie has unraveled her back story and collapsed, single-mindedly, into a bathtub of melodrama and bathos, the character seems less like a woman and more like a blunt political instrument.
All the movie's authenticity seems to have been spent getting permission to film at the UN, which Pollack and his crew, to their credit, capture as a nearly living organism that merely puts up with humanoids racing around it. But the production's bid for realism leaves most of the African people stranded. We meet lots of corrupt and murderous black Matobans but not a single conventionally decent one, which leaves the film with a gaping credibility problem in the racial-representation department. (In fact, Randolph recently told Entertainment Weekly that he wanted a white actress to play Silvia to demonstrate that not all white Africans are racists.)
''The Interpreter" is about the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of black Africans, whose murders Silvia is forced, alas, to interpret. Kidman becomes the face of genocide, and I'm dismayed to report that atrocity has never looked so lovely.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.