Political thriller. What an oxymoron.

Luckily for us, Hollywood always loves a challenge, and in this case, they usually deliver. Resembling the disaster movie's ability to make water and air exciting, the political thriller gets to say, aw, the hell with it, and put C-SPAN in a big, swirling tornado of stuff that just doesn't happen but would be really really cool if it did.

But the best in the genre buckle their seat belts. The explosions can't blow up more brain cells than are required to follow its high-brow smarts, after all. You know, the kind of smarts that ooze out of every scene in The West Wing, where the speed at which characters scamper aimlessly through corridors matches their speaking rate, and all the overlapping dialogues rush just as quickly right over your head (though you'll never admit it).

To its great credit, The Interpreter, Sydney Pollack's latest attempt to regain his Oscar glory, was interesting, well acted, and, most importantly, unpredictable. (Predictable political thrillers are a waste of the words to describe them. Maybe they could play on C-SPAN.) Despite its being cooped up in stuffy buildings most of the time, it managed to include a nice, slow-motion explosion to give the special effects guys something to do.

But about halfway through, after you've been introduced to a made-up country, made-up evil leaders, their made-up evil conflict, and Nicole Kidman's made-up accent, you realize that will this made-up tornado isn't going to throw you for any real twists. The high-brow smarts are there, sort of, but they don't really refer to anything going on in the real world. It's like your fifth grade social studies class, where the Tea Pot Dome scandal only mattered because it was written in bold type in your textbook. It's diet politics. And that's not very thrilling.

Nicole Kidman plays Silvia Broome, an interpreter for the United Nations who overhears whispers about an assassination attempt on a tyrannical African leader. Oscar winner and total whiny jerk Sean Penn (did you see what he said to Chris Rock at the Oscars this year?), as distressed FBI detective Tobin Keller, is assigned to investigate her claim and Broome herself, who turns out to be keeping her own secrets. No, they don't fall in love (I think I would've walked out if they had), but they talk a lot, find stuff in common, you know. Hang out.

We all know Kidman and Penn are perennial award magnets, but let's recall, just for fun, that Sydney Pollack is a fabulous director, even though he hasn't done anything awesome in more than a decade. That's the rule in Hollywood?once a good director, always a good director. That's why Kevin Costner got to make The Postman, Waterworld, Tin Cup, and God knows what other atrocities after he lucked out with Dances With Wolves.

But anyway, I digress. Pollack once directed Dustin Hoffman in drag in Tootsie in 1982, one of the best comedies ever made. He won the Oscar for best director for Out of Africa, the Best Picture of 1985. But then, twenty years hence, once wonders if he's like Sean Connery and quality degrades with age (The Avengers?! League of Extraordinary Gentlemen?! There goes "quit while you're ahead."). But no?while the whole picture here is not that flattering, the man can do wonderful things with a camera. He can bring you up close to the characters. You can see it here, down to the individual wisps of blond hair in Kidman's irritating hairstyle.

Which brings us back to politics, because Pollack engaged in some of his own. In fact, there may have been more unspoken deals and fuzzy rhetoric surrounding the film than there actually was in it. As any imdb.com nerd will tell you, The Interpreter is the first movie to film at the actual United Nations complex. Yee-haw and wow that's cool, but when Pollack met with Kofi Annan to warm him up to the idea, word on the street is he had to tell him that his film would make the U.N. look good?which it does, but not for any good reason. There's no mention of current controversies, just poetic monologues about the power of cooperation and diplomacy and everything you'd expect. It may take place in the famous domino-shaped building, but all The Interpreter really tells you about the U.N. is that it's big and it's got good lighting. So Pollack essentially locked himself into a publicity stunt. Regardless of whatever impact it actually had, this is more than a little responsible for the film's lack of referential flair.

Overall, The Interpreter is proof that you actually can go a little bit wrong with two Oscar-winning actors and an Oscar-winning director. But all this is not to say it's not worth watching, not exactly. It may not push its content to its thrill potential, but staying safe is certainly a more excusable offense in Hollywood political thrillers than being predictable.