It's one of history's sublime inversions that, just as Marco Polo traveled to China during the Thirteenth Century for egocentric discovery reasons, the wealthy Westerners of our own Twentieth Century cavort throughout the slums of India in pursuit of - can you guess? - selflessness.
Which does not disparage the era's newfangled spiritual-improvement process in the slightest. Some years ago, an actress friend of mine left London, England, for Jeypore, India, to take part in a TV movie shooting over two months. The minute she landed, she recalls, and witnessed the disease, poverty, misery, and generally appalling quality of life, she wanted to catch the next flight back to the West. Then, slowly, the human dimension overcame nagging cultural preconceptions, and the barrier came tumbling down. During her stay, she would savor the cuisine, architecture, exotic vegetation, spice aromas, multi-hued colors, and most of all, the people of India, as she could scarcely have imagined. When it was over and time to return home, she wept. By many accounts this is a common effect of seeing India - the change in perspective is immeasurable, and, many say, life-enhancing. Just ask Jerry Brown.
British director Roland Joffe apparently has been similarly moved and transformed by India's misshapen melting pot. In a commemorative, behind-the-scenes book reporting the story of his new film, City of Joy, he writes with heartfelt eloquence about the city of Calcutta: "It is a fecund, intricate maze of streets dotted with the dumpy and decaying presences of myriad colonial palaces. Once magnificent, fantastic essays in brick and marble, now these massive structures - like trees in the Amazonian jungle - are barely discernible beneath the weight of countless smaller dwellings. Eleven million souls inhabit this city, whose surface area is not much bigger than Manhattan. The city is splitting open with what is both its wealth and its burden - its teeming, milling crowds, all needing to be fed, watered, sheltered, succored."
In his short career as director, Joffe has chronicled three historic sagas whose concern and sensitivity toward cultural underdogs has been much praised. Joffe's concentration on the Third World accounts for three of four directorial efforts: First was 1984's The Killing Fields, which followed Cambodian photographer Dith Pran's survival and emergence from Pol Pot's genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. In 1986 came The Mission, a film whose consciousness-raising was set in the late Eighteenth Century, in South America; the victims were Guarani Indians, the tormentors were Spanish and Portuguese colonialists. Joffe's next film, Fat Man and Little Boy, an American production, depicted the Manhattan Project's rush in the Forties to create the first atomic bomb. It was his least successful film, pitting two of society's least sympathetic quarters - Washington's wartime military and J. Robert Oppenheimer's scientists - as victor and vanquished. City of Joy, while set in the present, brings Joffe back to Asia, and to abject poverty.
Roland Joffe has never been more intentionally earnest and so resultingly fraudulent. Working with a script by Mark Medoff based on the popular novel by Dominique Lapierre, City of Joy begins with a dimly lit, slow-motion sequence in Houston, Texas: Doctor-in-distress Max Lowe (Patrick Swayze) cannot save an infant patient's life, so he impulsively discards his hospital post and moves to India. World-weary despite the comforts of an advantaged and affluent lifestyle, he finds himself amid the diseased and hungry masses of downtown Calcutta, drunk, puffing on a stogie, and assignating with a hooker. Meanwhile, an Indian family from the provinces, led by Hasari Pal (Om Puri), a peasant, has been forced off the land by money lenders. The family of five moves to Calcutta in order to earn a higher wage to save for the daughter's dowry.
Max and Hasari cross paths when the latter saves the American from a mugging late one night. Lowe is taken to the City of Joy Self-Help School and Dispensary run by Joan Bethel (Pauline Collins), a middle-age British woman who's attempting to provide basic health care for the city's underprivileged. Max rejects initial attempts to practice medicine in India. Meanwhile, a brutal local ganglord who acts as security protector, landlord, and rickshaw owner to that section of the city, allows Hasari to operate a rickshaw. The film's little-guy-versus-the-forces-of-evil theme is emphasized in hackneyed Hollywood style when Max, Hasari, Joan, and a legion of lepers take on the godfather. If you know your Frank Capra there's no reason to give away the ending; if you like it dusted with garam masala, you'll salivate - and possibly well up, too - over City of Joy.
It's symptomatic of our moviemaking nadir when formulas from decades ago are trotted out to elicit smiles and tears. Yet there is nothing substantially different in this film to distinguish it from, say, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington - except that the mutated extremities and disembodied vessels crawling through mud on the way to victory are everywhere. The leper colony, filmed quite graphically, includes the most gleeful bunch of "untouchables" you ever saw; they're as cloyingly saccharine as Ron Howard's midget brigade in Willow. Joffe's calculated humanity is disgusting.
The acting from the Indian contingent is, as you might expect, dependable and good. And Pauline Collins, though she has developed a little heft since her delightful performance in Shirley Valentine, does not embarrass herself; she simply walks through this guiltmongering claptrap.
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And then there's Patrick Swayze - torn, tormented, anguished, the most hyperactive brooder the Ganghes River ever reflected under moonlight. Swayze is an enigma: Whether he's dancing, bouncing, surfing, banking, or in this case, stethoscoping, he still looks as if he just stepped out of a trailer park. Swayze is the trashiest movie prince in the history of American cinema, and I can only pity the army of women under his spell strewn in Dairy Queens across the nation.
And yet, inevitably, Prince Patrick has been hitting television screens hard lately - especially on such up-market shows as Entertainment Tonight and Showbiz Today - instructing America on how important City of Joy is, how the cause of India's downtrodden must be addressed, and how meaningful the experience of poverty and hunger was to him personally. When promo-rhetoric of this variety is placed beside the finished product, you're tempted to take two things for granted: One, the star's trailer was as air-conditioned as a luxury hotel suite. And two, that his hunger was abated with elephant-size platters of tandoori chicken.
CITY OF JOY
Directed by Roland Joffe; written by Mark Medoff, from the novel by Dominique Lapierre; with Patrick Swayze, Pauline Collins, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, and Baroon Chakraborty.