It can’t be an easy feat for a movie director — five feature films that, on the surface anyway, have little or nothing in common. Five offspring, as motley and dissimilar as the scene around Angelina Jolie’s dinner table.
But that, in a cinematic nutshell, is Marc Forster. Since rising to Hollywood’s B-list with the heated socio-sexual theatrics of “Monster’s Ball” (2001), the German-born director has fashioned himself into a poor man’s Gore Verbinski (“The Ring,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”) — the kind of chameleon filmmaker who switches genres like the rest of us switch shampoo brands. To date, Forster’s policy of stylistic nonpolicy has yielded one sparkling lit-fantasy (“Finding Neverland”), one muddled paranormal thriller (“Stay”) and a light-hearted stab at pop surrealism (“Stranger Than Fiction”) that missed by inches.
Now comes “The Kite Runner,” arguably Forster’s most-anticipated film to date, and — despite the attendant peals of controversy — his least daring. Taliban death-threats or no, this is a hard piece of subtitled, sentiment-driven melodrama to get worked up over.
Admirers of Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel know the story, adapted in maximum-Catholic fashion by screenwriter David Benioff (“The 25th Hour”). Afghani émigré Amir (Khalid Abdalla from “United 93”) has just sold his first novel and is living the good life in pre-9/11 San Francisco when he gets a call from the Middle East, asking for a visit. It seems that his childhood friend Hassan has run into some trouble.
Naturally, the call stirs up sweet and painful memories from a simpler time, when wimpy, bookish Amir (played as a child by Zekeria Ebrahimi) and homely, disadvantaged Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) used to run wild over the streets of 1970s Kabul, dueling other kids in epic kite battles. (Forster shot the scenes, convincingly enough, in rural China.) Though from different castes (Amir is from wealthy Pashtun stock; Hassan is a poor Hazara, and indentured to Amir’s family), the boys are devoted to each other. “I would eat dirt for you,” Hassan vows, without irony.
And so he does, metaphorically, first in a nonexplicit gang rape scene with a trio of neighborhood bullies, and later when Amir — ashamed of his own cowardice — systematically betrays his friend and drives his family away to salve his conscience. The Soviets invade, the years pass, and adult Amir finds himself back in Afghanistan, now Taliban-ruled, with a chance at redemption. Admittedly, Amir’s journey yields some high-value moments — most notably, a horrific stoning scene — but much of it lacks sensation. Couldn’t Forster have taken some of that artistic spice from “Monster’s Ball” and infused his vanilla filmmaking here? (This is all academic to the young Afghani actor who plays Hassan; his family fled the country, fearing Taliban reprisals for the rape scene.)
If Forster has any one calling card as a filmmaker, it’s his ability to coax great work out of good actors. In “The Kite Runner,” the beneficiary is actor Homayoun Ershadi, who as Amir’s fearlessly moral, unabashedly Westernized father, imparts a portrait of stalwart fatherhood as imposing as any since Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In an otherwise light-hitting drama, he provides the punch.
REVIEW | "The Kite Runner"
Cast: Khalid Abdalla, Zekeria Ebrahimi, Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada, Homayoun Ershadi
Behind the scenes: Directed by Marc Forster, from a script by David Benioff
Rated: PG-13 (strong thematic material including the rape of a child, violence and brief profanity), 122 minutes