- Backstabbing for Beginners
- Directed by: Per Fly
- Written by: Per Fly and Daniel Pyne
- Starring: Theo James and Ben Kingsley
- Classification: 14A; 108 minutes
Here is a short list of things that actor Theo James cannot do convincingly: 1. Use a pen. 2. Open and close his briefcase. 3. Drink out of a wine glass. 4. Sit in a chair. 5. Hold a car door open for a woman he wishes to seduce. 6. Talk on the phone. 7. Breathe air, mostly. 8. Occupy a moment in physical space and time without seeming like a very handsome, very constipated Ken doll. (It’s the permanently furrowed brow and the purse of his perfect lips.)
The star of the Divergent franchise is the leaden lead of Danish director Per Fly’s Backstabbing for Beginners and he destroys what is otherwise a great premise for a political corruption thriller. To be fair, Fly’s laughable script, co-written with Daniel Pyne, and his flat, unimaginative two-dimensional direction don’t help much either. The film was originally cast with Josh Hutcherson (star of that other dystopian teen franchise, The Hunger Games), who dropped out when the film’s dangerous shooting locations in Morocco and Jordan became a safety concern. Hutcherson made a wise choice: appearing in Backstabbing for Beginners is hazardous for your career.
The film is adapted from Michael Soussan’s memoir of the same name, which chronicles his time as an idealistic 24-year-old who began working on the United Nations’ Oil-for-Food Programme in 1997. Known as the largest humanitarian effort in UN history, it attempted to aid the Iraqi civilians who were experiencing devastating living conditions after the 1990 invasion in Kuwait. However, Oil-for-Food actually implicated the UN in the biggest financial scandal in its history, as many officials received all matters of kickbacks for signing onto a program that diverted funds away from the Iraqi people and toward Saddam Hussein’s corrupt regime. It is an excellent idea for a movie. Who wouldn’t want to green-light a political thriller about an an idealistic young diplomat who becomes a whistle-blower?
However, whatever potential was evident in Soussan’s source material is wasted on empty clichés and spoiler-alert casting. There’s a bullish Ben Kingsley (the film’s biggest coup and asset), playing James’s boss, a high-ranking UN official who has apparently taken some interest in mentoring his naive young assistant. (With his liquid eyes and clenched Mr. Burns posture, Kingsley is trying to fill out a predictable role whose only interesting character trait is his profuse swearing.) There’s the sexy Kurdish spy, played by Turkish actress Belcim Bilgin, who has a few great emotional moments against her wet paper towel of a man. And then there’s Jacqueline Bisset as a hard-charging senior UN official, just another pawn in this chess game we call diplomacy, jockeying for political power in a man’s world.
Everyone except James, who is a sentient ball of wax in an H&M blazer, deserves far better. An Oscar-winner like Kingsley should not have to sell lines of dialogue like, “If you do anything to compromise the kid, I will get you deported so fast your hijab will spin,” no matter how many car payments he has to make. If you have to rely on voice-over narration to explain basic developments in your plot and how your protagonist feels about them, why not fix your script? And if you have no money, it doesn’t matter how many NYC taxi cabs you stage outside idling: Toronto’s Bay Street is not New York.
To the film’s credit, it actually does go to its far-flung, dangerous locations to stage a few key action scenes, such as when the nefarious bad guys put pressure on James to keep his mouth shut. However, a frequent use of archival footage from the Bush administration, unveiling the real life consequences of Oil-for-Food, is far more arresting.
This is a film that is ultimately about moral relativism. Kingsley’s foul-mouthed diplomat is there to explain the facts of life to James, the idealistic newcomer, who just wants to change the world. (Just in case it’s unclear, James tells his love interest over drinks, “I am doing this because I want to change the world.”) Truth is a mutable concept and the art of diplomacy is all about who can tell the most convincing lies. The corruption at the dark heart of what society considers an upstanding institution has been beautifully articulated on television as of late. Shows like House of Cards, Veep, and Scandal are experts in unveiling the layers of contradiction in their flawed do-gooder protagonists. Every week, they throw salt into their psychic wounds to ask why powerful people seek power in the first place. And when television is getting so complex and cinematic, even Canadian co-productions have to do better.
Poor genre efforts like Backstabbing for Beginners hurt cinema’s chance to survive and thrive as the greatest medium for storytelling. Just wait until you see Theo James try to turn on his computer.
Backstabbing for Beginners opens May 4.