Periscope Depth

but that was thirty years ago, when they used to have a show

The Tailor of Panama: Profoundly disappointing. When someone pitches you a film directed by John Boorman, based on a novel by John le Carre, starring Pierce Brosnan, Geoffrey Rush, Jamie Lee Curtis and Daniel Radcliffe, you bank on the project paying off. Only after the credits roll (in Comic Sans) and the introductory scenes stumble offstage do you check the back of the case again. Then you remember that this isn’t just the John Boorman who directed Deliverance and Excalibur; this is also that John Boorman who directed Zardoz and Exorcist II. And John le Carre (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) is also John le Carre (Simple and Simple; The Honourable Schoolboy). And this film was released in 2001, a year before anyone could picture Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter. Sorry to mislead you; kind of a dick move on my part.

After several false starts, The Tailor of Panama positions itself as a dark comedy. Harry Pendel (Rush), Savile Row tailor to the most important bankers, gangsters and politicians in Panama City, has a bit of financial trouble due to some real estate speculation. Into his shop strolls Andy Osnard (Brosnan), an MI-6 operator who wants Pendel to pass along any gossip he hears when attending his clients. And he’s willing to pay. The only problem: Osnard doesn’t care how reliable Pendel’s intelligence is, since he’s paying for it with MI-6 money and skimming off the top. And Pendel doesn’t have any intelligence to sell, except for the BS he’s been spinning for the last ten years. It’s one of those perfect storms of corruption, where everyone’s equally willing to pass lies up the chain and money down it.

The problem: aside from a few clever scenes, the movie doesn’t work as a comedy. It lacks the zany pacing of screwball and the deadpan of satire. Characters are sincere when they should be silly. Rush and Brosnan are too dignified to clown like they should, though they later got over this problem (see Pirates of the Caribbean and The Matador, respectively). And Boorman tries to pass of Brendan Gleeson as a native Panamanian, which is just insulting.

The Tailor of Panama‘s not without redeeming moments. The tipping point of BS, when Pendel intimates to Osnard that the President might have secret plans for the Panama Canal, takes place on a vibrating bed in a whorehouse; sadly, it goes on either thirty seconds too long, or sixty seconds too short, to be truly funny. Catherine McCormack manages the blend of confidence, humor and sensuality that she’s been working for two decades, but that she can do in her sleep. And character actor Dylan Baker’s act three cameo as General Dusenbaker very nearly saves the whole show. Unfortunately, these flourishes can’t save the overall production. It feels like a grand dream built on promises that ring hollow upon closer examination – rather appropriate for Panama, but not good cinema.