October 25, 2007

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Rendition (R)
A pregnant Reese Witherspoon and the conscience of Jake Gyllenhaal are all that stand between Witherpoon’s Egyptian-born husband and an indefinite period of captivity and torture in Rendition, an engrossing movie even if it plays a bit like The War On Terror Brought To You By Aaron Sorkin.

Man’s not subtle, likes his speeches. Rendition is also not subtle, also likes its speeches. But I consider myself, still, a Sorkin fan. I stuck with that damn Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip until the end. So perhaps I’ve developed some sort of immunity to politics-themed melodrama.

Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) boards a plane in South Africa after a conference (he’s an engineer). Egyptian-born, Anwar has an American green card and an American wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), and son, Jeremy (Aramis Knight). His final destination is Chicago but before he can pass through American customs, security pulls him aside and, as the doors to some back room close, we see masked people pull a bag over his head.

As Anwar is spirited out of the country and into the prison of some less squeamish Arab country, we meet Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a CIA analyst who is thrust into the messy world of “information gathering” when an attempted assassination of that country’s sympathetic-to-the-U.S. law enforcement official, Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor), results in the death of an American. Abasi Fawal will interrogate Anwar and Douglas is to watch and learn. Though it’s a job he feels uneasy about, it’s one that his higher-ups, including CIA big shot Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep), believe is necessary to investigate terrorist threats.

While Douglas wrestles with his conscience, Abasi has other problems, specifically, daughter problems. His somewhat free-thinking daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach) is resisting arranged marriage and is staying with Abasi’s very free-thinking sister. She’s even seeing a boy, Khalid (Mohammed Khouas), who she knows her father wouldn’t approve of. What she doesn’t know is that there are more reasons than class and future prospects for her law-and-order father to dislike the politically minded Khalid. (Actually, Abasi’s probably less law and order and more order and order.)

Back on the American homefront, Isabella realizes something’s up when the airline tries to convince her that her husband never boarded the US-bound plane but she has a credit card statement suggesting otherwise. Isabella leaves her son with her mother-in-law and takes her belly to Washington, D.C., where she goes to an old college friend (an ex-boyfriend, we suspect) to help her with her husband’s situation. Alan (Peter Sarsgaard) is an aide to a senator (Alan Arkin). He quickly realizes that Anwar isn’t just stuck in standby somewhere and attempts to help Isabella through her sticky situation without putting himself and his senator in political danger.

This movie has about nine different things going on and it doesn’t swap back and forth between them all that elegantly. When Alan and his senator are arguing about rendition, you kind of forget that Anwar’s been stuffed naked in a sewer-pipe-like hole. When Corrine (who speaks with a weird accent which I think is supposed to be a play on President George W. Bush’s) is assertin’ her responsibility to fight terrah, or whatever, you forget about the romantic problems of Fatima. It’s all sort of connected but it’s kind of lamely connected at times, like that to-be-expected twist ending that always comes at minute 47 in an hour-long cop drama.

The performances also bring to mind standard TV drama stuff — and not your early West Wings but more those Without a Trace/Cold Case/Criminal Minds shows that all sorta run together for me. Streep’s character is probably the least convincing but Witherspoon and Gyllenhaal don’t inspire Oscar talk either. I guess the “creates a believeable character” prize here could be shared by Metwally (who does a good job of looking confused, enraged and scared all at once) and Naor (a good mix of weary realism and, uhm, looking stern).

I almost feel like Rendition is sort of a guilty pleasure — though it seems weird to say that about a movie featuring extensive scenes of torture and a discussion of an actual serious thing that our government does and which we should probably all think a lot more about. But the movie is too earnest and artless to seriously spur that discussion. I don’t know that I’d even rank it as high on the Important Movie scale as the recent, explodey The Kingdom. Rendition is, however, nearly as watchable as The Kingdom with a story that is stress-free and easy to decipher. I’m not sure your addressing-world-issues movies should be about on par with middle-of-the-pack episodic television but I guess it could be worse. C+

Rated R for torture/violence and language. Directed by Gavin Hood and written by Kelley Sane, Rendition is two hours and two minutes long and is distributed by New Line Cinema.