'The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" should go by another title: "How to Turn an Audience Into a Sniffling, Blubbering Mess in 90 Minutes Flat." All the key components are there: a horrific, painful moment in history, a whole bunch of drama, and let's not forget the children -- the poor, naive children.
Set in the 1940s, the movie is mostly seen through the perspective of Bruno (Asa Butterfield), an 8-year-old boy whose only mission in life is to play with his friends. Unfortunately, this doesn't fit into the plans of his recently promoted military officer father (David Thewlis), who moves the whole fam from his palatial Berlin home to a house out in the country, near a concentration camp.
Yeah, you see where this is going now?
Bored out of his mind, with no other kids in sight, he goes exploring in the woods and meets another boy, a bald, pajamas-wearing kid named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), at the "farm" Bruno can see from his house.
His new pal is stuck behind an electrified barbed-wire fence. But this doesn't stop them from conversing and learning stuff about each other, like that Shmuel is one of those Jews that Bruno's dad is helping wipe off the face of the Earth.
Flatly directed by Brit Mark Herman ("Little Voice"), "Pajamas" aims for the heartstrings and fervently tugs on them without a hint of subtlety.
It pays off. At the screening I went to, a lady rushed out the theater, sobbing uncontrollably, when Bruno sells Shmuel out to a snarling Nazi lieutenant (Rupert Friend) after he gets caught with pastries Bruno gave him.
I'm guessing she didn't read the John Boyne novel (where it's spelled "pyjamas") on which the movie is based, or else she would know the sadness that lay ahead.
Herman, who also wrote the screenplay, has made quite a few changes in the story. He gives Bruno a mother (Vera Farmiga) who is more sympathetic -- and clueless -- than she was in the book, providing her with a conscience (as well as an instant disgust for her husband) once she realizes what exactly that burning smell is in the air.
The whole movie plays -- or should I say preys -- on audience sympathy, making sure viewers are nice and traumatized by the time the excruciatingly tragic ending comes around. (While I'm here, I might as well say, for the love of God, don't take your kids to this unless you want a carload of screaming children on the ride home.)
Herman's intent to use a shameful moment in time to emotionally manipulate moviegoers left me feeling a bit more offended than saddened. He attempts to drive home the message that the Holocaust was bad because Nazis imprisoned and killed not only innocent Jewish adults, but kids, too.
Man, that's a shocking revelation -- that I found out when I was in high school. (Between "Pajamas" and the upcoming "Valkyrie" with Tom Cruise and "The Reader" with Kate Winslet, people will have many chances this holiday season to be shocked by what Hitler did.)
I'm sure I'll get e-mail and calls from readers saying that I don't have a heart or I'm making light of the Holocaust.
But with the trite way "Pajamas" presents itself, coming across like the dullest period piece the Hallmark Channel has never aired, it is practically making light of the Holocaust.
The people who survived and died in that atrocity deserve something more serious and competent.
"The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" just makes you shed a pitiable tear for those people. No honoring their memory. No remembering their ordeal. Just momentary tears.
Now that's sad.