Beyond Borders (review)

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Feed the World, Fall in Love

If this movie had been made 60 years ago and had starred Orson Welles and Barbara Stanwyck or Tyrone Power and Katharine Hepburn, you’d stay up late into the night watching it on PBS or Turner Classic and sob your eyes out even though you know it’s corny and not very realistic. So don’t avoid it now just because Angelina Jolie’s lips are enormously distracting and she can’t really act and there’s something just a little creepy about two privileged Westerners falling in love in front of a backdrop of the world’s great humanitarian disasters.

Cuz there’s something sorta nicely old Hollywood in Beyond Borders, the sweep of star-crossed romance and personal sacrifice, the high cornball drama of the naive socialite and the dashing renegade doctor/relief worker she chases around the world and with whom she shares a passion that’s almost entirely sublimated and unexpressed as they bring food and medicine to the needy and downtrodden. It would all be perfectly ridiculous if it weren’t so gosh-darn moving, in that Hollywood way that makes you hate yourself for crying, hand me another Kleenex, dammit.

It works, partly, because the only corny stuff is the love story — if there’s perhaps something a wee bit condescending about using human suffering to set the stage for hackneyed Hollywood romance, it must be said that the human suffering is so powerfully depicted that it’s easy to see how the guilt of the well-off could fuel both a desire to help and a desire to fall into someone else’s arms and be saved from the horribleness of the world. When Jolie’s Sarah Jordan leaves comfortable, well-fed London, her first encounter with the grim reality of 1980’s North Africa — this is before Bob Geldorf asked us all to Feed the World — is witnessing a vulture stalking a baby nearly starved to death… and I have never been so glad to be able to identify a CGI creation as I was with that baby. You have to wonder whether director Martin Campbell (Vertical Limit, The Mask of Zorro) didn’t ask his FX people not to make the baby look too real lest it be entirely too distressing for us pudgy Americans munching on our popcorn.

Beyond Borders follows Sarah’s 10 years of journeying to Africa, Cambodia, and Chechnya, and Campbell and screenwriter Caspian Tredwell-Owen don’t romanticize civil war or oppression or starvation — one scene featuring the depravity of Khmer Rouge soldiers is particularly harrowing — and if it takes Lara Croft to get the word out to the general American non-newspaper-reading, Fox News-watching public about what a miserable place much of the world is, I’ve got no problem with that. For this alone, Jolie deserves that Citizen of the World Award the UN just gave her, the one for her work as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

But here’s the major problem with Beyond Borders: Jolie herself. Bless her clearly well-meaning heart, but even when it comes to a subject she is obviously personally quite passionate about, she just can’t manage to get that passion up onto the screen. When Clive Owen (The Bourne Identity, Gosford Park) crashes the movie at the same time his Dr. Nick Callahan crashes the fundraising ball Sarah is attending, Jolie is bowled over by Owen — and who can blame her; the man is sex on wheels — and she is never able to muster any real response to his intensity. When he’s all low-boil rage at the bullshit of the world that keeps food and water and vaccines away from people that desperately need it, she just comes across as rather put out by it all. When he’s positively aquiver with desire and frustration — even when Nick has to turn, as so often happens in these kinds of flicks, instantly from angry bitterness at her naivete to fascinated interest in her pluck — she’s mere tepid acquiescence bending to his will. She tells him, and us, all about her quivering desire and unquenchable rage, but she never makes us really believe it.

And that’s too bad. Because for all its problems, Beyond Borders still raises a lump in the throat and lingers rather hauntingly. If Owen had had a stronger leading lady, this could have been a minor classic of cornball Hollywood romance. As is, it’s just a better time at the movies than you’d expect.

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