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The Tailor of Panama   A-

Columbia Pictures

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Director: John Boorman
Writers: Andrew Davies, John le Carré, John Boorman (based on the novel by le Carré)
Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Pierce Brosnan, Jamie Lee Curtis, Brendan Gleeson, Catherine McCormick, Leonor Varela, Harold Pinter.

Review by Rob Vaux

"Oh, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive!"
--Sir Walter Scott

John le Carré's novels serve as a delightful tonic to all those spy myths we've been raised on. His world of espionage has no slick operatives, no diabolical plans, no colorful chases through exotic locales. His spies are a gang of bureaucrats, bullies, and cuckolds -- con artists who fool themselves as much as anyone else. They analyze papers. Read reports. Spread bullshit around -- a lot of bullshit -- but never accomplish the daring feats that the movies and books attribute to them. They are, I suspect, uncomfortably close to the true nature of espionage work.

The Tailor of Panama plays on that cognitive dissonance between what we want and what truly is. Directed by John Boorman from the book by le Carré, it wickedly skewers the delusions -- both personal and national -- that mask ordinary government work behind a seductive web of "international intrigue." It has no fiery shoot-outs or glamorous femme fatales, just a pair of congenial liars who end up causing far more trouble than they're worth. One of the running jokes is the presence of Pierce Brosnan, playing a character about as far removed from James Bond as Oral Roberts is from Mother Theresa. His Andy Osnard is a crude shyster, MI6's resident lothario whose bedchamber shenanigans botched his last assignment beyond repair. As punishment, his superiors send him to Panama, with orders to keep tabs on the local movers and shakers. He soon focuses on a natty little tailor named Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush), an ex-con with a successful shop and a penchant for fabrication. Pendel has convinced his wife and family that he comes from prime Saville Row stock, but Osnard sees right through him, and semi-blackmails the man into serving as his mole. Luckily, Pendel loves telling stories, and finds in Osnard a willing listener. What begins as a reluctant partnership soon flourishes into a mutually agreeable bullshit session.

There's just one problem. While Pendel is connected (he cuts suits for the nation's most powerful figures), his connections don't translate into dynamite intelligence. Simply put, there's nothing going on in Panama. No one has any sinister plans, there's no great threat to the worlds' security -- just a corrupt elite quietly taking kickbacks to ensure that things stay on schedule. In order to compensate (and shake some money loose), Pendel starts embellishing his stories: inventing conspiracies where none exist, painting drunkards as cunning rebel leaders, etc. Osnard, desperate to improve his image, willfully ignores the clear exaggerations, and reports them to an all-too-eager British government. It doesn't take long for the situation to land them both in hot water.

Boorman laces this tale with cynical wit, taking gleeful shots at the sugarcoated fairy tales hiding as national interests. He bases the drama around the two cads at its heart, focusing on the interaction between them rather than any flashy action sequences. Osnard and Pendel are great big boys, "playing a game" as they put it without realizing the consequences. Brosnan clearly relishes a chance to show up his James Bond image -- everything about his role reeks of crass duplicity -- while Rush does away with his usual hamminess to give us a self-deluded yet strangely sympathetic title character. So enraptured are they in their mutual deception that they fail to notice how far out of control it spins.

While the thriller elements function admirably, The Tailor of Panama works best as a dark comedy. Not only do the principal characters suffer under its satirical eye, but the nations they represent as well. The lush scenes of Panama City hide genial corruption at its base, corruption that no one really wants to end. Osnard's British superiors lie enviously under the heel of the Americans, and his hot air gives them the chance to believe that they still run the world. Meanwhile, the U.S. forces who recently abandoned Panama chafe at what they perceive as an enormous loss of face, and eagerly leap upon any opportunity to get it back. Both nations believe Pendel because it's convenient to do so, without once considering what colossal fools it makes them. The joy in The Tailor of Panama comes from watching what hideous oaks grow from Pendel's acorns, and from the desperate measures he and Osnard take to get free of them.

Boorman handles the diverse array of themes here -- comedy, political thriller, character drama -- with practiced ease, delivering a fine film without appearing to work for it. Fans of John le Carré's would-be spies will find plenty to like about this latest adaptation, but even hardcore Bond fans will enjoy such a walk down the dark side of the street. The Tailor of Panama reflects a seamy reality that we don't get much of in the movies -- a reality full of bumbling, messy, absurd mistakes. For that reason, it doesn't feel like a normal espionage thriller; it feels much, much better.

Review published 04.02.2001.

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