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'Tailor of Panama, The'

Friday, April 20, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Yes, that's Pierce Brosnan playing a British secret agent in the film adaptation of espionage master John le Carre's 1996 novel "The Tailor of Panama." But any resemblance to that other Brosnan movie spy -- some fella named Bond, James Bond -- is strictly satirical.

'The Tailor Of Panama'

RATING: R, for strong sexuality, language and some violence.

STARRING: Pierce Brosnan, Geoffrey Rush, Jamie Lee Curtis.

DIRECTOR: John Boorman.



Andy Osnard lets his shirts hang out sloppily over his pants. British Intelligence has banished him to Panama for various indiscretions, like getting too friendly with a superior's wife -- no, his mistress (Andy does have a Bondian appetite for sex). He's not there to prevent trouble, so he decides to start some.

His unwilling accomplice is the tailor of the title, Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush), who makes suits for Panama's elite and enjoys the company of his loving wife, Louisa (Jamie Lee Curtis), and family. But she doesn't know about the skeletons in his closet or about the debts about to crush him under the thumbs of the respectable businessmen who are swindling him.

So Harry can't resist when insolent Andy waves big bucks under his nose and demands a crash course in identifying the country's movers and shakers, although he seems to know a lot already. The real prize is information about future plans for the Panama Canal.

Before you can say "shaken, not stirred," Andy is cooking up a big swindle of his own that will make everyone happy except the Panamanians and those few foreigners who care what happens to them -- Harry and Louisa among them.

By this point director John Boorman, le Carre and fellow screenwriter Andrew Davies have moved beyond making fun of oversexed British agents to something more serious, a lampoon of international diplomacy in which bald-faced lies and the willingness to believe them for one's own gain can lead to, well, let's just call it one hell of an international incident.

What the filmmakers seem to take most seriously is how Harry's misadventures threaten to rip apart the fabric of his family, which is sewn out of a different set of lies.

Without car chases or gunfights or wild gadgetry (maybe that's why Columbia Pictures worries the movie won't sell and has all but sneaked the film into town), "The Tailor of Panama" offers a witty premise and a first-rate cast that also includes Brendan Gleeson as a washed-up veteran of the anti-Noriega past, Leonor Varela as Harry's receptionist and conscience and playwright Harold Pinter, of all people, in a bizarre role as Harry's Uncle Benny, who pops up in the tailor's mind to give advice, sometimes to be ignored but usually not when he should be.

Alas, Uncle Benny represents what's wrong with the picture -- its scattershot approach and uneven tone. As a satire, the movie needs to be tightened up and to play faster and funnier. As a political statement, it needs to be blunter and less goofy. As a character study, it needs to dig a little deeper into the supporting roles.

In many ways, it plays best as a domestic drama -- Harry's comfort and joy at being a family man and his terror of losing it all result in some of the truest moments in the movie. He is the one character in the film who cares too much and Rush, blending humor and pathos, is not afraid to share that intimacy with us.

He provides the heart in a film that aims more at the head and sometimes shoots itself in the foot. But the ammunition is live, which is more than you can say for most films these days.

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