"Entertainments" is the way celebrated British novelist Graham Greene described his clever, sophisticated diversions such as "The Third Man" and "Our Man in Havana," and John Boorman's spiffy film version of spymaster John le Carre's "The Tailor of Panama" is very much in that satisfying but often ignored tradition.
An amusing yet deeply and darkly cynical look at the endemic nature of corruption and venality in a world where the good are discomfited and evil flourishes, "Tailor" benefits from delicious acting from co-stars Geoffrey Rush and Pierce Brosnan, a mordant script co-written by le Carre (along with Boorman and Andrew Davies), and the distinctive touch of its director.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday April 2, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Composer's credit--Shaun Davey composed the original music for the film "The Tailor of Panama." The score was incorrectly credited to another composer in Friday's Calendar review.
A man whose credits range from "Point Blank" and "'Deliverance" to "Hope and Glory" and the more recent "The General," Boorman never seems to approach his material quite the same way twice. In addition to the craft implicit in 35 years of directing, he brings intelligence, verve, a sense of fun and a clear lack of sentiment to material that benefits from all of the above.
More than being Greene-ish in spirit, "Tailor's" premise owes an acknowledged debt to "Our Man in Havana." Filmed by Carol Reed in 1960 with the unlikely combination of Alec Guinness and Ernie Kovacs, "Havana" features a mild English vacuum cleaner salesman named Wormold who becomes haphazardly enmeshed in espionage and supplies London with drawings of a new bomb that looks suspiciously like, well, a vacuum cleaner.
A lush, tropical locale just down the road from Cuba, "a wriggling little worm on the map with a canal across it," Panama is, as one character puts it, " 'Casablanca' without heroes," a place where no good deed goes unpunished and "a man who tells the truth is bound to be found out sooner or later."
This story's Wormold is a British tailor named Harry Pendel (Rush), happy both as the husband of the quintessentially American Louisa (a well-utilized Jamie Lee Curtis) and as the most celebrated tailor in Panama, the heir, he often says, to a proud Savile Row tradition. Once the man who dressed Gen. Manuel Noriega, Pendel not only believes but actually says such things as "for me, the changing room is as sacred as the confessional."
The fly in this particular tropical ointment is British spy Andy Osnard, smartly played, in a kind of amiable inside joke, by Brosnan as the anti-James Bond. A smug, profligate wastrel and the kind of ruthless seducer who always finds room in his swim trunks for a flask, Brosnan's Osnard fits le Carre's description of someone who "had no craft or qualification, no proven skill outside the golf course and the bedroom."
Osnard is in Panama because that uninviting land was the best his boss in British intelligence could do for him after a career distinguished only by gambling debts, blown covers and affairs with the wives and lovers of important men.
With his practiced eye for other people's weaknesses, Osnard focuses in on the connected tailor as his entre to the top levels of Panamanian society. For besides knowing a lot, Harry Pendel has both credit problems and a secret past that no one in the country, not even his wife, knows about. "You've got the debts, I've got the money," Osnard tells the tailor. "It's a game," he invitingly promises. "Let's have some fun."
One of the shrewdest notions of "Tailor" is that these two self-important, officious individuals are made for each other in a way neither one recognizes. If Pendel is blind to how down to his last inning Osnard is, the British spy has no idea what a compulsive mythologizer, romanticizer, even liar, his new contact is. "It was tailoring," the novel explains of Pendel's methodology. "It was improving on people. It was cutting and shaping them until they became understandable members of this internal universe."
So both men devote large amounts of time feeding each other misinformation, getting everyone they know, including Pendel's scarred associate Marta (Leonor Varela) and broken down ex-rebel Mickie Abraxas (an excellent and unrecognizable Brendan Gleeson), into a world of terrible trouble.
Strong as Brosnan is, Rush is more impressive for the ways he can make us sympathize with someone who is doing dreadful things. Immaculate and at his well-tailored ease in Tom Wolfe-ish three-piece ice cream suits, Rush's Pendel does his best work as he gets increasingly helpless, as he gradually comes to realize that mere duplicity is hardly a match for complete amorality.
Adept at putting both the physical Panama (Philippe Rousselot did the vivid location photography) and an involving psychological landscape on screen, director Boorman has made the creation of good dark fun his primary aim here. Greene, the master, would likely have been pleased.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong sexuality, language and some violence. Times guidelines: definitely an adult sensibility.
'The Tailor of Panama'
Pierce Brosnan: Andy Osnard
Geoffrey Rush: Harry Pendel
Jamie Lee Curtis: Louisa Pendel
Leonor Varela: Marta
Brendan Gleeson: Mickie Abraxas
Harold Pinter: Uncle Benny
Released by Columbia Pictures. Director John Boorman. Producer John Boorman. Executive producer John le Carre. Screenplay John le Carre and Andrew Davies, based on the novel by John le Carre. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot. Editor Ron Davis. Costumes Maeve Paterson. Music Carter Burwell. Production design Derek Wallace. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes.
In general release.