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Monday, March 8, 2010

THE RACE IS ON: Reviews of My Name Is Khan and The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train is the most recent film by Andre Techine, one of my favorite French film directors. However, by the time the movie was over, I really wasn’t sure what it was about the subject matter here that intrigued Techine. The centerpiece of the movie is an attack on a young woman on a train that she claims was anti-semitically motivated, but later turns out to have been fabricated. A fascinating subject, true; but at least for me, not a particularly fascinating treatment of it. In fact, very little of the movie has to do with the attack itself or the reason for it. There are also subplots concerning the woman becoming involved with an aspiring wrestler who starts dealing drugs to support her (the most interesting aspect of the movie); the woman’s mother (played by the ever luminous Catherine Deneuve) contemplating reviving a romance with a lawyer who was in love with her when her husband was in the army (the lawyer is played by French stalwart Michel Blanc—neither Deneuve or Blanc are particular strangers to Techine’s movies); the young woman finding a job, though she doesn’t seem particularly suited to do anything; the marital difficulties of the lawyer’s son and daughter-in law (including whether to give his grandson a Bah Mitsvah). The screenplay (by Odile Barski, Jean-Marie Besset and Techine himself) is what one might call all over the place. The acting seems fine, though one of the problems is that the lead, Emilie Dequenne had a certain Gwyneth Paltrow blandness to her; however, this may not have been her fault—her character does seem a bit lost at sea; if the writers’ don’t seem to understand what made her tick, it makes it that much more difficult for the actor. But in the end, what exactly this movie has to say about being Jewish in France (if the attempt was to say anything) or what prompted the young woman to lie (the character isn’t even Jewish) doesn’t come through.

I’ve only seen three Bollywood movies, but I think I’m really beginning to warm up to them. I’m not sure what it is. They’re sentimental, over the top, obvious and have no shame in how they try to manipulate you. But there’s just something about this lack of shame that is often what makes them work as well. I especially love their Dickensian approach, taking a social or political issue and putting it in a popular form. For Like Stars on Earth it was dyslexia. For 3 Idiots (my favorite so far), it was the high suicide rate at Indian colleges. But My Name is Khan (not a sequel to a Star Trek movie) takes the cake combining Asperger’s syndrome with 9/11, racial and religious intolerance and Katrina. Everything but the kitchen sink, which actually does appear quite often as well. It shouldn’t work. It’s too much. But again, there is just something about the over the top sincerity of it all that finally makes you just throw up your hands and go along with it. The lead is Shahrukh Khan, apparently the most popular Bollywood actor today and he is in top form as the lead character suffering from Asperger’s who goes on a journey to tell an American president, any American president, that he is not a terrorist after his little boy is killed by schoolyard bullies for being Middle Eastern in background. In some ways, the logic of the plot often makes little sense. The death of his son doesn’t happen for almost eight years after 9/11. Khan then crisscrosses America going from shore to shore with little ease and in almost no time. One day he’s in the South, the next he’s in California, a little while later he’s in New Mexico, then suddenly he’s back in the South having no problem getting to a remote town in spite of a raging hurricane. This ease of travel also applies to the other characters who all manage to show up in a small Southern town during a hurricane with no problem whatsoever as well. And the money issue is as vague as Khan’s travel plans. One day he can’t get money out of an ATM because his balance is so low. The next day he has enough to give five hundred dollars to a charity. On one hand, this stops the movie from really being as good as it could be. At the same time, this clunky structure does add a certain charm to the whole thing. The writers (Shibani Bathija and Niranjan Iyengar) take an awful chance killing of Khan’s child half way through. I thought this was just too much manipulation and didn’t think there was any way the plot could recover. But by the time it was over, I was crying my eyes out over the journey everyone went through. The politics is obvious here. Khan could never get to Bush to tell him he isn’t a terrorist. But once Obama is elected, Obama modifies his schedule to meet with Khan even though Khan really doesn’t even have to tell Obama that he’s not a terrorist, Obama knows. Change has come to America. At least that’s the hope.

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