For obvious reasons, Hollywood has been struggling to make films that comment on our relationship with the Middle East. And though many have focused on the wages of war, few have tackled life "over there" from the local point of view. So, to adapt a celebrated and best-selling novel about growing up in Afghanistan is a no-brainer. Unfortunately, with Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Monster's Ball, Stranger Than Fiction) at the helm, the results are predictably disappointing.
Despite the accolades heaped upon his films, Forster is a glossy filmmaker who carefully chooses his images, hits all the right emotional buttons and rarely achieves a moment of authenticity. Complex themes are often distilled into movie-friendly gestures, turning alarming or interesting material into something dramatically generic. It's not a big deal if you've got, say, Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet and Billy Bob Thornton to connect the emotional dots for you. But when your cast is filled with non-actors and foreign unknowns, then broad clichés and banal confrontations don't cut it.
Simultaneously conventional and lofty, The Kite Runner suffers from a distinctly outsider view of Afghan culture. Forster and screenwriter David Benioff (Troy) force a Western perspective on Khaled Hosseini's lauded novel, ignoring the traditions and social context of his characters to tell yet another coming-of-age tale devoid of anything as messy as subtext or ambiguity. It's not that anything's particularly terrible about the film, it's that there's nothing extraordinary about it.
Divided into three unequal parts, the first segment (nearly an hour) is the most engaging. With an air of magical realism, Forster follows wealthy Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) and his best friend Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) growing up in Kabul in 1978. Children of different classes, they share an unconditional love for The Magnificent Seven, competitive kite flying (captured in CGI glory) and each other. That's until Hassan is brutally assaulted by teenage boys and Amir does nothing to intervene. Guilt turns into petty acts of cowardice, which in turns drives a wedge between the boys and, before you can say "Soviet invasion," the chance to make amends is lost.
Escaping to America with his father, Amir (Khalid Abdalla), now a young man, struggles to become a writer while living in San Francisco. This immigrants-in-America narrative goes flaccid as romance and family illness plop into place without tension or drama. Just when you consider exiting, however, a phone call gives Amir the unexpected chance to make amends with Hassan's family, sending him on a dangerous personal mission into Taliban-occupied Kabul.
Unfortunately, what should be a satisfying act of redemption is more like ho-hum Hollywood plotting because so little of Amir's guilt is explored. The film's muted tone, unfocused plotline and tepid lead actor are all a poor setup for the awkward action that follows.
Worse, Forster's hellish vision of modern Afghanistan illuminates his filmmaking limitations. He only shows us two visions of Amir's homeland: idyllic kite-flying wonderland or wasteland of carnage and depravity. It's a patronizing view that robs The Kite Runner of subtlety or humanity, reducing everything to banal interactions, contrived drama and manipulated emotions.
The cast is, mostly, a mixed bag. While the non-actor children who play Hassan and Amir are unable to bring proper depth to their motivations, they are, undeniably, authentic and likable. Abdalla is a weak choice for leading man. Though classically handsome, he lacks the gravity to connect us to Amir's childhood. Homayoun Ershadi, on the other hand, is mesmerizing as his father, though the part is skimpily written. Along with the equally fine Shaun Toub (Crash), who plays the boy's uncle, these two Middle Eastern actors deserve a wider audience.
Despite its condescendingly sensitive approach to story, The Kite Runner clearly has good intentions. You'd be hard-pressed not be touched by some of its more poignant scenes, which will hopefully inspire you to seek out the book. And given the state of literacy in America, there are certainly worse outcomes.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.