Unlike directors whose films you love to hate, Roland Joffe makes movies you hate not being able to love.
While many filmmakers with his kind of access to major-league funding are content turning out mind-numbing pabulum, Joffe functions as a kind of restless cinematic conscience. From his debut with "The Killing Fields" through "The Mission" to his current "City of Joy," he has refused to worry about who shrunk the kids and instead opted for politically engaged films on weighty subjects like the plight of Cambodian refugees and the devastating effects of Spanish colonialism.
Yet, though you have to applaud Joffe's intentions, it is very difficult to warm up to his films partly because they have a foot in both camps. As "City of Joy" (AMC Century 14) demonstrates, even if your consciousness-raising intentions are pure, when you lie down with major money and studio methods you run a high risk of getting up with fleas. Yes, Joffe has gone to considerable trouble in this film to use the real India as his backdrop, but "City of Joy" makes you wonder why he bothered if he was going to bring all the cliche baggage of Hollywood thumping along behind him.
Based on Dominique Lapierre's best-selling novel, "City of Joy" is set in Calcutta, a city that gives new meaning to the phrase "teeming multitudes." And even though (as Premiere magazine reported) local politicians strenuously tried to block filming in the city because of fears that the picture would show that "only the whites are saviors," Joffe and his cinematographer, Peter Biziou, persevered. It is easy to see why.
It has been said that if you just point a camera in India, you can't go wrong, and "City of Joy" (rated PG-13) underlines that thought by capturing the riotous atmosphere of this metropolis of 11 million plus. The decaying but colorful buildings, the overflowing crowds, the omnipresent lepers and the people washing in the streets, it's all here for the looking.
Unfortunately, this concern for verisimilitude and authenticity didn't extend to the script by Mark Medoff ("Children of a Lesser God," "Clara's Heart"). Despite (or maybe because of) everyone's best intentions, "City of Joy" is filled with overly earnest, self-important speeches and situations, sacrificing its desire to make us sympathize with a very particular set of circumstances by giving in to the obvious at every turn.
Though the original novel presented a wide variety of characters, the film cuts back and forth between only two centers of interest. The first is Hasari Pal, his wife, Kamla ("Madame Sousatzka's" Shabana Azmi), and their three photogenic children. Poverty has forced this poor but plucky family from their rural village to that aforementioned teeming metropolis, where, inevitably, they are quickly taken advantage of and just about turned into beggars before fate, in the form of American Max Lowe (Patrick Swayze), intervenes.
Lowe, we've seen in a brief prologue, is a surgeon who flees his profession after losing a patient on the operating table. He shows up in Calcutta incongruously looking for hamburgers after an apparently not very satisfying visit to an ashram. "I opened the windows and doors of the soul," he says in a typically self-important speech, "and haven't found a damn thing."
The merest chance brings Hasari (played by Om Puri, a veteran Indian actor with a marvelously expressive face) and Max together and deposits them both on the doorstep of the City of Joy Self-Help School and Dispensary, a woebegone clinic-in-the-slums run by the preternaturally cheerful Joan Bethel ("Shirley Valentine's" Pauline Collins), a kind of Mother Teresa with a brogue.
It goes without saying that Joan will try to interest Max in working at the clinic, and that the good doctor will protest strenuously that he is finished, finished do you hear, with medicine, a vow that sounds as ironclad as Scarlett O'Hara saying she has finally had it with Rhett Butler.
Meanwhile, Hasari has found employment as a rickshaw puller, but his boss turns out to be an ailing gangster with a psychotic son. Soon Max has more to wrestle with than his conscience, as he tries to single-handedly save Hasari, free the slum from gangland control, get the locals to love the lepers, save a young lady from prostitution, even combat a monsoon. No wonder the man often looks sweaty and out of breath.
The fact that "City of Joy" doesn't play quite as ridiculously as it sounds is partially due to Swayze's efforts. Though he is doubtlessly miscast, being as unlikely a choice for this role as he would be for the lead in a biography of Albert Schweitzer, Swayze tries very hard here and does as well as he can under the circumstances.
The problem is that "City of Joy" is laboring under the delusion that it can have it both ways, luring in the multitudes with an obvious plot and a hot star while clandestinely educating them about the plight of India's downtrodden masses. It is, like many of Roland Joffe's films, a noble idea that stubbornly refuses to fly.
'City of Joy'
Patrick Swayze: Max Lowe
Om Puri: Hasari Pal
Pauline Collins: Joan Bethel
Shabana Azmi: Kamla
Art Malik: Ashoka
A Lightmotive production, released by TriStar Pictures. Director Roland Joffe. Producers Jake Eberts and Roland Joffe. Co-producer Iain Smith. Screenplay Mark Medoff, based on the book by Dominique Lapierre. Cinematographer Peter Biziou. Editor Gerry Hambling. Costumes Judy Moorcroft. Music Ennio Morricone. Production design Roy Walker. Running time: 2 hours, 14 minutes.