The Interpreter is a watchable but slack romantic thriller that is neither very thrilling nor particularly romantic. Packed with Oscar-winning talent, from stars Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn to director (and cameo-actor) Sydney Pollack, it rarely delivers anything like a thrilling punch or a romantic spark.

Old-fashioned, full of big, romantic close-ups of its stars, wearing its United Nations ideals like an all-access ID badge, Interpreter never rises above middling. Still, it's fitting that a movie about communication should be so chatty that it talks much of the drama right out of itself.

Kidman stars as Silvia, a UN interpreter from a fictional South African country beset by civil war and ethnic cleansing. One night, alone in her sound booth, she overhears a conversation about an assassination. It's in an obscure dialect, but one she knows.

If only she can convince UN security and the Secret Service, in the form of agent Keller (Penn) and his partner Dot (Catherine Keener), that she's not making this up out of political malice.

She avoids answering direct questions, speaking only in pro-UN platitudes.

"I believe in this place," she says. "I'm for peace and quiet. That's why I came to the UN."

There's a bluff flirtation to the iterrogation scenes. The little sizzle from the agent-interpreter confrontations comes from quips.

Silvia is wired for a polygraph test.

"Can I get you anything?" Keller asks.

"How about a hood," she snaps back, an Abu Ghraib shot.

The film, cobbled together by at least five screenwriters, has hints of a more riveting story happening off camera. It also has some of the inverted racial expectations that In My Country wears - a white African spouting the folksy spiritual platitudes that the movies traditionally reserve for wizened Mandela look-alikes or cartoon characters from The Lion King.

Kidman is merely OK in the title role. She rarely acts as if she's a model strolling a catwalk, but that's what she does here. Her performance is built around a pose, her ability to keep locks of her hair flopped strategically over one eye.

Penn, however, is a marvel. His agent is equal measures personally distraught (he's missing his wife) and perplexed u this very important case that he's been given. The weariness and wariness he conveys is an acting clinic. Too bad he's given a couple awkward personal confession moments that seem pretty unprofessional for a Secret Service agent.

Pollack is a decent actor as well as director, but his cameos, post-Tootsie, have an attention-grabbing nature that undercuts them. When you're not spending a dime on supporting players (only Catherine Keener makes an impression), having the director take a low-profile "You go home, get some sleep" Secret Service boss role is distracting.

The big gimmick here is that Pollack, director of Out of Africa and Havana and a specialist in big, star-driven romances, was allowed to film inside the actual UN General Assembly Building. Hitchcock and the James Bond crew and others have always had to fake it.

But we don't go to movies for the sets, do we? The one good set piece, a nervy encounter on a bus involving an African exile leader, the interpreter, a would-be assassin and several agents, is set up so sloppily that it lacks dramatic tension, as indeed does the entire enterprise.

Competent, for the most part, occasionally involving and always pretty to look at, it's a pity that the best one can say for The Interpreter is that something gets lost in the translation.

Grade: C

© 2005, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.