Earnest epics about the plight of the Third World seldom turn out well, and the best one can say about 2003's romance-amongst-relief workers, Beyond Borders, is that it never manages to be bad enough to be any fun. Angelina Jolie stars as Sarah, a newlywed whose life of comfort and privilege is shaken to its core when she witnesses a dramatic display of civil disobedience by dashing humanitarian aid worker Nick Callahan (Clive Owen). Sarah is moved to follow Nick to Ethiopia for her first taste of the despair of relief work, and although he at first treats her with contempt, her haunted eyes and stricken pout melt his sarcasm and the two trade soulful gazes until she must return home. So begins an "epic" romance, but only "epic" insofar as it takes many years and exotic locations to wind this pretty but oh-so-dull story to its conclusion. Beyond Borders is bad, but rarely in any original way. To his credit, first-time screenwriter Caspian Tredwell-Owen never sugar-coats the indigenous barbarity that creates refugee crises, and neither does he shy away from some of the moral dilemmas aid workers face as they grapple with the difficult logistics of their practice. But just as in most other movies dealing with strife in foreign lands, the beleaguered natives and their suffering are never much more than a picturesque backdrop for the western heroes' comparably trivial navel-gazing. A two more boring central figures would be difficult to conjure. Sarah and Nick are not so much characters as they are a collection of noble intentions, prosaic inner-conflicts, and photogenic facial expressions. Their romance consists mostly of a series of intense glances, and when the two speak to each other, it is only in terms of alternatively trite or irrelevant introspection. In fact, these two are so self-involved, it takes them a decade to finally become involved with each other. Neither does it help that, if removed from their flattering line of work, both Nick and Sarah are mostly cold and despicable characters who pretty much deserve the struggle and squalor they have thrown themselves into. Had Tredwell-Owen, or hack director Martin Campbell, chosen not to glamorize their subjects, there may have been compelling material to mine: What misanthropy, self loathing, social retardation, and/or ostracization leads most aid-workers to pursue such a dreary, isolating, and thankless task? But is anyone really going to make (or, for that matter, pay to see) a movie that is critical of humanitarian relief workers? Saints make for lousy dramatic subjects, and Beyond Borders finds itself in a no-win situation. If it weren't for the pretty pictures of Namibia (standing in for Ethiopia) and Thailand (masquerading as Cambodia), there wouldn't be much to recommend Beyond Borders at all, but patient viewers may be rewarded by the incongruously romanticized (and morbidly gratifying) ending, which achingly suggests how truly bad the movie could have been, if only it had tried harder. Paramount presents Beyond Borders in a fine anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Director Campbell and producer Lloyd Phillips offer some interesting tidbits in a commentary track (like how they used CGI to create starving African babies as if there aren't any looking for work thereabouts). Less interesting are two behind-the-scenes featurettes. In another featurette, Tredwell-Owen discusses his uninspired approach to the material, and there's also a three-minute snippet called, "Angelina: Goodwill Ambassador," about Jolie's role as a U.N. prop, and how much she really cares. How art imitates life. Keep-case.
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