Khaled Hosseini's novel "The Kite Runner" may have blown away legions of readers, becoming one of the best-selling novels of recent years. But the movie version, directed by Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball," "Finding Neverland") just blows it, period.
"Runner" tells the story of Amir (Khalid Abdalla, "United 93"), a California-based Afghan man who was raised in the United States after he and his father (Homayoun Ershadi) fled Kabul when the Russians invaded. Now a writer, he gets a call from his mentor to come back to his homeland to help the son of a childhood buddy.
The film immediately flashes back to the late 1970s, when Amir was a child (played in those years by Zekeria Ebrahimi) growing up in Kabul along with his servant, Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada). Though Hassan is looked down on for being of another ethnic group, that doesn't stop them from hanging together and competitively flying kites. (Apparently, "kite fighting" was the thing in Afghanistan back in the day.)
Those good times immediately turn to horror when, while Hassan retrieves a kite, a bully and his crew beat and rape him. Even more unsettling is that Amir, too scared to intervene, watches the whole thing and runs away.
(Oh, yeah, Merry Christmas, by the way.)
Instead of trying to rectify this situation, facing his shame and reporting this horrendous crime to someone for the sake of his friend, he recoils, pushing himself away from his best pal.
(Did I mention have a Happy New Year?)
An Olympic bummer of a film, "Runner" has only one redeeming quality going for it: the sight of Ershadi, the star of Abbas Kiarostami's minimalist Iranian classic "Taste of Cherry," boldly playing Amir's booming-with-pride father.
When we first see Amir's dad, he tells a friend that his chip off the ol' block doesn't have much of a backbone. We initially think the old man is being too hard on the young lad. But no, he's pretty much on the money.
Maybe it's just me, but "Runner" seems less a story about Middle Eastern redemption and rediscovery and more like two hours watching a gutless tool try to become less of a gutless tool. When Forster and screenwriter/novelist David Benioff ("Troy") aren't making the movie as prosaic and heavily melodramatic as Hosseini's book -- perhaps even more so -- they're providing a protagonist who is somewhat of a ninny. (Not to mention an inadequate writer.) Even when he heads back to Taliban-controlled Kabul in the third act to honor his task, he appears more timid than determined.
And can I just say, after seeing this film, I'm officially convinced Forster can't block a scene for nothing. In one shot, a supposedly personal, revealing moment between two characters has the actors moving back-and-forth so much, I was hoping somebody would stub a toe and stay still.
If that's not enough, "The Kite Runner" is swimming in controversy, with the movie's young Afghan actors having to relocate with their families amid fears the film could aggravate tribal enmities. (Why is it always the mediocre films that get the scandalous press?) For a moviegoer like myself, the most controversial thing "The Kite Runner" does is make audiences think they'll see a poignant, thought-provoking story for our times.