I don't want to make fun of "Beyond Borders," really I don't. Even if its title sounds like an ad campaign for Barnes & Noble. Even if its heroine is accurately described -- by herself -- as "Little Miss Bleeding Heart." Even if it has lines like "I wonder, do we all know where we belong?" that practically beg for a snappy "anywhere but here" rejoinder.
I want to avoid snickering because the subject of this film, the worldwide refugee crisis, is an important one. Making the picture seems to have changed star Angelina Jolie's life, turning her into a United Nations goodwill ambassador, and care was taken to shoot the film in a series of far-flung countries.
But the hard truth is that the line between being deadly earnest and unintentionally silly is thinner than these people think, and "Beyond Borders" turns out to be an unreal film about a real situation, unavoidably cartoonish, as was the earlier "Tears of the Sun," in its attempt to join crucial issues to ridiculous melodrama.
If the Bruce Willis-starring "Tears" attempted to combine an action plot with a "we are the world" sensibility, "Beyond Borders" combines thinking good thoughts with the plot devices of old-fashioned romantic weepies about women suffering, suffering, suffering because they are married to the wrong men.
Written by debuting screenwriter Caspian Tredwell-Owen, this ungainly combination has thrown everyone off stride. Director Martin Campbell, who's had success with action-oriented entertainments like "The Mask of Zorro" and "GoldenEye," is trapped outside his area of expertise trying to lend an air of seriousness to wildly contrived situations.
Even more a prisoner is Jolie, who plays Sarah Jordan, a woman who suddenly discovers that life is more than ball gowns and strings of pearls. (It is, isn't it?) The part is not only awkwardly written, it is completely unsuited to its star's talents.
Jolie, as she did in her Oscar-winning role in "Girl, Interrupted," can bring electricity and believability to roles that have a reality she can understand. She can also, witness the "Lara Croft" films, do acknowledged cartoons. But the limbo of a hybrid character, a badly written cardboard person in a fly-infested, blood-and-guts world, completely defeats her.
The classically trained Clive Owen ("Croupier"), a former member of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, has more technique to fall back on in the part of Nick Callahan, a charismatic doctor/refugee advocate -- hot-tempered, pigheaded and darn good looking -- who alternately smolders and swears in his quest to make the world safe for those in trouble and in need.
These two meet not cute but rough in a 1984 flashback. Sarah is dancing with her posh new husband, Henry (Linus Roache), at a black-tie ball for an impressive-sounding charity called Aid Relief International when Callahan crashes the party, knocking her down in the process, and demanding to know why there's money for champagne but not for his Ethiopian refugee camp, where kids are so hungry they try to eat their own tongues.
Most of the guests simply shrug, but for Sarah, this is a life-changing moment. Suddenly her world of wearing tight sweaters and working in an art gallery is not enough. She shocks her husband by cashing in her savings, buying medical and food supplies and insisting on delivering them to the camp in person. "Sarah, this isn't how it's done," says her flummoxed hubby, and not for the last time.
It's typical of "Beyond Borders" pulp brazenness that it has Sarah run across a tableau of a dying boy facing a vulture that was the subject of a famous news photo of a few years back. Sarah scoops up the child -- whose malnourished look was created via computer imaging -- and insists that Callahan save him.
The good doctor, in what becomes typical of this shall-we-say tempestuous relationship, will have none of it. He's ungrateful for Sarah's largess, sarcastic about her naivete, mocking her best efforts with lines like "Where do you think you are, St. Elsewhere?" In short, try to fight it though they must, Hollywood is telling them they're in love.
"Beyond Borders" follows this star-crossed relationship over several years, as the still-married, now-a-mother Sarah gets increasingly involved in refugee matters and Dr. C ends up in dicier and dicier situations in places like Khmer Rouge-run Cambodia and chaotic Chechnya.
"Beyond Borders" probably thinks it's being realistic by implying that lack of funding gets the doctor more and more involved with the CIA, but it's yet another contrivance. When you sell your soul to the devil of melodrama, he always demands payment in full.
MPAA rating: R, for language and war-related violence.
Times guidelines: Graphic scenes of refugee suffering and malnutrition.
Angelina Jolie ... Sarah Jordan
Clive Owen ... Nick Callahan
Teri Polo ... Charlotte Jordan
Linus Roache ... Henry Bauford
Noah Emmerich ... Elliott Hauser
Yorick Van Wageningen Jan Steiger
Paramount Pictures and Mandalay Pictures present a Camelot Pictures production, released by Paramount. Director Martin Campbell. Producers Dan Halsted, Lloyd Phillips. Executive producer J. Geyer Kosinski. Screenplay Caspian Tredwell-Owen. Cinematographer Phil Meheux. Editor Nicholas Beauman. Costumes Norma Moriceau. Music James Horner. Production design Wolf Kroeger. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes.
In general release.