“Who cares if it’s true?” says Pierce Brosnan’s deliriously unscrupulous secret agent during the ornate repartee that flows through John Boorman’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s The Tailor of Panama. A raunchy farce of small deceptions, Boorman’s film takes a sledgehammer to the spy genre, riffing on meatier questions of truth, identity and the various faces we present to the world.
In the kind of coincidence critics live for, The Tailor opens the same week as Christopher Nolan’s Memento –a movie self-consciously preoccupied with genre deconstruction as well as that age-old feud between perception and reality.
Both films are provocative entertainments bold enough to challenge their audiences, but both also suffer from the lousiest, wet-fart anticlimaxes to dither across screens in recent memory.
For at least 100 of its 109 minutes, The Tailor of Panama can’t be beat. Pissing all over his stodgy Bond persona with glee, Pierce Brosnan seems to spring to life for the first time as Osnard, Andy Osnard–a spectacularly sleazy, oversexed, boozed-up MI-6 agent demoted to desk duty at the Panama Canal after ill-considered liaisons with wives of his superiors.
It doesn’t take the scheming Osnard long before he’s found his perfect co-conspirator. Harry Pendel. The tailor of the title, Pendel has a bit of a problem telling the truth. As played by the naturally hammy Geoffrey Rush with a supreme dollop of ostentation, Harry’s a closet ex-con who’s built his happy new life upon a foundation of carefully thought-out bullshit. Not technically a pathological liar, Harry’s just a tailor. He treats facts the way he treats his linen–always searching for places to nip, tuck and alter for sharper, more impressive presentation.
A broad, ribald circus flagrantly in love with the highways and byways of the English language, The Tailor seizes on what happens when you tell a lie for so long it starts to feel like the truth, and the film then balloons until its fast-talking profiteers have shot their mouths off loud enough to inadvertently start a war. Boorman, director of both Deliverance and Exorcist II, is obviously not a filmmaker who believes in half-measures, and The Tailor of Panama bustles with swaggering, jubilant showmanship.
Vertiginously overripe dialogue, courtesy of Boorman, Andrew Davies and Le Carré himself, struggles against an undercurrent of sweaty sexuality–the one subject never far from Osnard’s mind. (Brosnan’s hysterical leers and beery come-ons alone are worth the price of admission.) The Tailor of Panama walks a tightrope between blissful amorality and impending doom, with Boorman’s goofball New Wave techniques taking a turn for the surreal once some Strangelove-ian Pent-agon players join the fray.
Then there’s that goddamn ending. Reshot by studio mandate after test audiences balked, The Tailor of Panama‘s new finale not only looks like a 1980s sitcom, it bends so far backwards to grant consequence-free absolution to these duplicitous antiheroes, it ceases to make the slightest bit of sense.
But it’s better to have 9/10ths of a great movie than Memento, which I suspect was something of a no-win situation to begin with. The problem here isn’t the ending, but rather the beginning. See, the movie runs backwards. (Yup, sdrawkcab snur eivom eht.) As the least interesting portion of any mystery is always at the outset, Memento has no choice but to shrink before our very eyes, offering less avenues for anticipation as the picture rolls along.
Leonard Shelby suffers from a neurological condition that’s left him with no short-term memory. (I know, ladies; a typical male.) Strikingly well-played by L.A. Confidential‘s lantern-jawed tower of arrogance, Guy Pearce, our hero blacks out every 15 minutes or so, with no recollection of anything that’s come before. The last thing he can fully remember is his wife’s murder, just seconds before her attacker smashed Leonard’s head into a mirror, causing everything thereafter to fade away.
Undaunted by his handicap, Leonard sets out seeking vengeance for his slain bride, meticulously organizing his investigation into a collection of Polaroids and Post-It notes, even going so far as to tattoo significant clues all over his body.
A straightforward telling of Leonard’s quest would probably be mind-numbingly dull, necessitating constant, longwinded expositional recaps. (But come to think of it, isn’t that how most thrillers are written these days?) Instead, Nolan runs back to front, each scene fading out on the first line of the scene that preceded it. Effectively putting us in Leonard’s shoes, Memento is a marvelously demanding filmgoing experience, requiring rapt attention. You’re always at square one, in medias res and leaning forward, scouring the screen for clues as to what the hell is going on.
But for all its formal wizardry, Memento is ultimately an ice-cold feat of intellectual gamesmanship. Once the visceral thrill of the puzzle structure begins to wear off, there’s nothing left to hang onto. The film itself fades like one of Leonard’s temporary memories.
Until, for some unknown reason, Nolan explodes his final reel with one of those Keyser Soze, rug-pulling hissy-fits that obliterates everything we’ve been invested in thus far. Ultimately leaning upon philosophical doodlings that exemplify the considerable difference between “clever” and “smart,” Memento shortchanges our hard work in favor of specious pronouncements about the subjectivity of memory.
Or, as Osnard might giggle: “Who cares if it’s true?”