The lies `The Tailor of Panama' tells are designed to make things right. Too bad they quietly unravel.

April 20, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Walter Mitty in a war zone - a daydreamer whose mental idylls turn into nightmares. That's who "The Tailor of Panama" becomes in John Boorman's wry and disarming adaptation of John Le Carre's 1996 comic thriller. The movie is sterling adult entertainment: Even its fizzle of a finale carries a humane tang.

The tailor, Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush), owns "Pendel and Braithwaite of Savile Row and Panama City" and serves as its master craftsman, fashioning handmade suits for the elite of that Central American metropolis. Pendel pretends that Braithwaite was the saintly senior partner who sent him forth from Savile Row to make his fortune.

In reality, Braithwaite was Uncle Benny (Harold Pinter), a failing London dressmaker who arranged for Pendel to torch his warehouse and rewarded him for years in prison with a hefty chunk of insurance money.

The movie would be rich and funny enough if it simply pivoted on Pendel's self-image as a classy British expatriate and an artisan in alpaca. Pendel does love his work. He also loves his son, daughter and wife (Jamie Lee Curtis, in her warmest and best performance).

But the movie is also about white lies igniting dark ones. British agent Andy Osnard (Pierce Brosnan), assigned to Panama as punishment for a sex scandal, needs to find a well-connected man to satisfy his bosses. Pendel fits the bill. Osnard knows Pendel fibbed to his wife about his past and invested her legacy in a failing farm. And Osnard can provide the money to save it.

So Pendel accepts the cash for reporting on political intrigues overheard in clubs, fitting rooms or on the streets. Since there are no real intrigues, Pendel concocts wild conspiracies and peoples them with folks he cherishes. His platonic love and office manager Marta (Leonor Varela), who bears the scars of Noriega's torture squads, along with his burned-out idealist pal Mickie (Brendan Gleeson), become "the Silent Opposition" to a government plotting to sell the Panama Canal to Taiwan and Red China. Osnard knows all this is bunk. But he uses it to bilk the United Kingdom and the United States for millions.

"The Tailor of Panama" has pertinence that starts with topical melodrama and goes way beyond it. Co-writers Boorman, Le Carre and Andrew Davies stress at the outset that George Herbert Walker Bush first propped up Noriega, then toppled his regime with military strikes that also devastated his opponents. But even more impressively, the script conveys how easy it is, after such an epochal disaster, to live with high quotients of corruption.

Money laundering and drug trafficking permeate Panama. Some honest officials try to police and preserve the Canal. But the corruption doesn't reach critical mass until Pendel hits on the fiction of the Canal sale. And rather than prompt reform, this threat catalyzes America and its allies to take back the Canal by force. (Dylan Baker provides an uproarious cameo as a rabidly patriotic Yank.)

This movie defines the difference we feel in our bones between benign prevarication and the cold-blooded slaughter of truth. We never cease rooting for Pendel, because his inventions are only partly self-protective - they flow out of his yearning to make things right for Mickie and Marta and his family. Rush's performance is magnificently magnanimous: he brings out the best in his co-stars. With his crisp articulation, limber physicality and emotional elasticity, he's like a walking piece of fuzzy logic. He makes us believe in acts that are simultaneously virtuous and destructive.

Brosnan's Osnard is his perfect foil. Single-minded and narcissistic, he's the secret agent as pure evil: 007 as 666. His double-entendres and come-ons are feeble and crude. But Brosnan conjures a peerless brand of anti-charm. Without showing an ounce of sympathy or shared joy, he puts across the virility that would attract the prettiest worker in the British embassy (Catherine McCormack). He's not even the man you love to hate - he's the man you hate to lust for.

Brosnan turns his typical talent on its head. So does director Boorman, who forsakes his usual tingling virtuosity. He immerses you in Panama through Pendel's eyes, as a fluid mosaic of glutted boulevards and red-light districts, unspoiled wilderness and suburban havens far from the madding crowd.

Le Carre's book and Boorman's movie are open, affectionate homages to Graham Greene's novel and Carol Reed's film "Our Man in Havana" (itself an underrated movie). When the hero's friends start turning up dead, both pictures wobble: "Tailor" more perilously, since the stage is set for a massive climax that is all-too-abruptly aborted.

The closing scene is quiet - maybe too quiet. But we've grown so fond of Pendel that it's touching to see him back at home. His missteps have cracked some good eggs. It's a relief that he can cook his kids an omelet.

`The Tailor of Panama'

Starring Pierce Brosnan, Geoffrey Rush, Jaime Lee Curtis

Directed by John Boorman

Rated R, for language, violence and sexuality

Released by Sony Pictures

Running time 109 minutes

Sun score *** 1/2

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