Indeed, director Michael Cristofer, who helped launch Angelina Jolie's career in the HBO TV-movie Gia mostly by exploiting her brazen bisexuality, knew exactly what he was doing with this reunion. And he knew that in his broodingly handsome co-star Antonio Banderas, he had the perfect Latin lover in this noirish tale of lust and deception set in 19th century Cuba.
But somewhere along the way to trying to expose the tortured souls that lie in the depths of Cornell Woolrich's novel Waltz Into Darkness, Cristofer loses his way. Maybe it's because the convoluted story does, too, and Cristofer doesn't know how to right the course. He is dealing with characters who are victims both of their old habits and new-found passions, but their journeys stray so far off course that even all that glitter can't hold the viewer's interest. Well, not completely, at least, because even with its flimsiness, Original Sin ultimately is a guilty pleasure.
Part of the problem may be in the great expectations of the cast and subject matter. After all, Banderas and Jolie project so much heat, both together and separately, that the film could've been set in Alaska and there'd still be plenty of sweat. Then there's the story's lineage. Woolrich's stories, including the short story "Siren of the Mississippi" and the novel It Had to Be Murder, inspired noir master Alfred Hitchcock. And the double-identity woman of Original Sin could easily be confused with Vertigo's Madeleine/Judy.
Maybe writer-director Cristofer isn't going for a classic retelling so much as he is a stylish homage to a well-worn genre. In that case, he's not too far off the mark.
The set-up and follow-through are fairly predictable in their unpredictability. Banderas is Luis, a wealthy Cuban plantation owner who doesn't believe in love but knows he needs a wife, so he orders one from America. When he shows up at the docks, in his light wool suit that stepped right out of a Banana Republic catalogue, he is surprised to find not the homely woman of the photograph in his hand but the magnetic Julia. She lied about her looks because she wanted to be mail-ordered for who she truly was, she explains, in what is the first of a million red flags. Well, Luis, admits, he lied that he was middle class for the same reason, so they're even. "Then we have something in common," Julia says, eyebrow cocked. "We are both not to be trusted." Luis, staring right into one of her many cleavage-pumped gowns, heartily agrees.
Of course Luis falls in love with his wife, and Cristofer delights in shooting Banderas and Jolie in all their glorious nudity in a remarkably candid love scene (don't these stars have clauses by now?). And of course Luis has fallen for the wrong woman, to the point where he opens up his heart and his bank account while ignoring her inconsistent stories and physical and emotional scars. Next thing Luis knows, his real bride's sister is wondering what's going on, and a private investigator named Downs (Thomas Jane) is snooping around. Downs actually turns out to be Billy, who is Julia's partner in crime and love, and together they swindle Luis, and his downward spiral and quest for revenge serves as the springboard for the rest of the film's many twists and turns.
At the heart of those turns is how love and lust can make fools of us all. That in itself is an entertaining conceit. Luis is torn between his new-found passion and cynicism, while Julia sorts through her damaged psyche to figure out if she deserves Luis' love or Billy's abuse. Banderas has almost always unveiled a vulnerability beneath his swarthy good looks (even if he makes a cartoon-like drunk), and Jolie is the epitome of the instinctive actress with expressions that can be equally confused with pleasure and pain. The story, told by Julia to a death row priest in flashbacks, can sustain these conflicts through only so many plot twists, and when they stop affecting, the viewer stops caring.
New Orleanian Terence Blanchard's score weaves in and out with heady Cuban sons and congas that cue one mood after another, and the coastal vistas and interiors (shot in Mexico by Rodrigo Prieto) fuel the passion just as well as the actors. (Why Cristofer chooses to muck it up with all those jumpy edits, though, is a mystery.) As tiresome as the movie becomes, at least it takes delight in the beauty of its cast and surroundings. And that's no sin.