Poor Sean Penn. Between his appearances as an angry puppet in Team America and as an angry presenter at Chris Rock’s Oscar show, he’s squandered almost all the sympathy and admiration he’d earned from me and, I’m sure, many others. How do you go from Spicoli to such self-righteousness? Did he lose his sense of humor in Iraq or something? In any case, Penn’s grumpy and humourless performance is one of the main reasons “The Interpreter”, an otherwise pretty solid picture, is ultimately unsatisfying.

Granted, that’s kind of what the character calls for. Penn’s Tobin Keller is a recently widowed man who drinks too much and doesn’t sleep enough, but insists to stay on the job as a Secret Service agent in charge of protecting foreign dignitaries. You can understand him being stressed and miserable looking but, knowing Penn’s extracurricular activities, some of the dialogue (“You believe in diplomacy? You had a tough year.”) comes off extra bitter.

My love for Nicole Kidman remains alive and well, but she’s particularly dour too in “The Interpreter”. She plays Silvia Broome, an English-African interpreter at the United Nations with a “dark history” that is reignited when she overhears whispers of an upcoming assassination attempt to take place right there at the U.N. The target is Zuwanie, the president of the (fictional) country of Matobo, where kids run around with machineguns and corpses pile up in football stadiums. Zuwanie is coming to the United Nations to justify what many are calling genocide while he pretends he’s only ridding his nation of dangerous terrorists.

The film is most interesting for the way it addresses relevant issues like the need to stop ethnic cleansing and to bring war criminals before international justice, the difference between wanting someone “gone” and wanting him “dead” and whether words can be more powerful than guns. Unfortunately, the heavily rewritten/doctored screenplay (credited to no less than 5 writers, never a good sign) often feels compromised and overly safe. I’m not saying it’s got to be as questionably proactive and ideologically volatile as a Rambo flick, but it could use some of that passion.

“The Interpreter” is competently if unexcitingly directed by Sydney Pollack – it’s like a very, very low-key episode of 24. Much is being made of how this is the first production ever allowed to shoot inside the U.N. General Assembly and the Security Council but honestly, so what? It’s a big auditorium with a lot of blue seats, nothing that couldn’t be easily recreated inside a studio. And maybe then the filmmakers wouldn’t feel obligated to be so respectful and would shake things up a little.

The bus scene (stupidly spoiled in the movie’s trailer) and the climax are intense enough, but the rest is all slow and quiet – which is OK, but for a thriller? It’s not like the film really cuts it as a drama. Plenty of emotional backstory is provided, but Kidman and Penn remain too cold and distant for the audience to feel all that involved in their struggle.