By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated February 16, 2009 at 12:00 PM EST

As if bankers don’t have enough of a PR problem these days. In The International, the new thriller by director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), Clive Owen plays an Interpol agent investigating IBBC, an evil international financial institution that commits a lot worse crimes than spending $12,000 on an executive wastebasket. Bankers have misbehaved on the screen before, of course, but it’s hard to imagine Milton Drysdale or Mr. Potter stooping so low as to sell Chinese arms to Syria, finance Congolese rebels, or assassinate an Italian politician. “The very essence of the banking system,” one pin-stripped character ominously warns, “is to make us all slaves to debt.”

Tykwer obviously couldn’t have anticipated the current anti-banker sentiment when he was shooting his film last year, but talk about lucky timing. His movie couldn’t be more topical if it included a subplot about octuplets and a pot-smoking Olympic swimmer. The film’s distributor, Columbia Pictures, certainly didn’t miss the opportunity to milk the banking backlash in its publicity, with taglines like, “They control your money. They control your government. They control your life. And everybody pays.” It’s hard to get more zeitgeisty than that.

And yet, The International’s opening box office was so dismal this weekend, it could qualify for a bailout. It came in seventh, earning only $10 million, behind even the fifth weekend of Paul Blart: Mall Cop. The mostly subprime reviews didn’t help, but it was still a little surprising that more moviegoers weren’t intrigued by the film’s ripped-from-the-headlines plot. Maybe Columbia underestimated how unpopular bankers are these days; people don’t even want to invest $9.50 with them. Or perhaps Tykwer just didn’t make a thrilling enough thriller, no matter how timely it may be. What do you think, Pop Watchers — why didn’t you go see The International this weekend?