January 3, 2008

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The Kite Runner (PG-13)
A troubled childhood in Afghanistan in the 1980s produces a moody American novelist in 2000 in The Kite Runner, a rather draggy movie based on the wildly popular novel.

As a child, Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) is the son of a wealthy widower. A Western-style-clothes-wearing kid living in a well-appointed house, Amir has as his best friend Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada), the less-Western-seeming son of his fatherís servant. (Though both boys love Steve McQueen.) Though the boy himself also acts as a servant, Hassan and Amir spend their days away from the house running and playing together, particularly with the kites that are a major pastime in Kabul. Though their friendship is the source of some teasing by some local bullies, Hassan is the most loyal of friends to Amir, always sticking up for him (much to Amirís fatherís dismay, who doesnít think Amir is all the boy he should be). Itís fear that keeps Amir from stepping in to help Hassan when bullies attack him and shame about his own behavior (evidence, he seems to think, that his father is right about his cowardice) that leads Amir to distance himself from his friend after the attack.

While this personal drama plays out, Afghanistan itself is also in turmoil and soon Amir and his father are forced to flee before the approaching Soviet army. Years later in America, Amirís father (Homayoun Ersahdi) finds himself working at a gas station and hoping ó futilely ó that college graduate Amir (Khalid Abdalla) will give up his dreams of being a fiction writer and become a doctor. Amir, on the other hand, wants to be a novelist and eventually produces a novel about Afghanistan. But just as heís poised to head out on his book tour, he hears from a family friend who urges him to return to the area. Itís now the Taliban that has a stranglehold on the country and itís Hassanís son who is in need of help.

I havenít read the novel and, due to the acclaim it has received, I suspect that it is far richer and more layered than this adaptation, which simplifies the plot into a bare-bones story with a very pat ending. The details of pre-war Afghanistan are interesting and I found myself wanting more ó more explanation of what life was like, more explanation of the social structure (at several points in the movie, people of Amirís class make derogatory comments about the people of Hassanís ethnicity but we donít get much background on either group), more description of the diaspora community in America. There is both a rushed feeling to the storytelling ó a hurry to get to each episode of Amirís story ó and (because you can so easily predict each plot twist) a sense that the story drags as the movie lumbers to catch up with what the audience already knows is going on.

The performances here are solid enough ó the children in particular do a good job of approximating the behavior of actual children pushed into their circumstances and portraying the emotions that real children (and not an adult writerís idea of children) might have. But, due to the only half-developed nature of the characters, these good performances never get the chance to be really great.

The Kite Runner has the look and feel of an Important Epic Movie but it never gets the development and nuance it needs to elevate it above the standard moderately successful adaptation. B-

Rated PG-13 for strong thematic material including the rape of a child, violence and brief strong language. Directed by Marc Forster and written by David Benioff (from the novel by Khaled Hosseini), The Kite Runner is two hours and two minutes long and is distributed by Paramount Vantage.