Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 06, 2004 12:59 pm 
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House of Sand and Fog

This story has a real tragic dimension: it reaches a point where for everyone involved to die seems the best solution; where all one can do is weep buckets. But even as the tears flow one realizes that the main characters are too deeply flawed to be worthy of our sympathy. Not every downfall justifies being cast as tragedy. Moreover there are weaknesses in casting, setting, and plot that make Perelman's movie fall far short of its intended goals.

The talented, forceful British actor, half-Indian Ben Kingsley (whom reviews repeatedly congratulate on being so fit at 60), is cast as Colonel Behrani, an Iranian who was an officer under the Shah and has since become an American citizen. Kingsley presides over a little family played by actors of authentic Iranian origin. His wife, Nadi, played by the superb, touching Shohreh Aghdashloo, has a heavy Iranian accent. His young son, Esmail, played by Jonathan Ahdout, as a youth who's grown up in America, properly speaks unaccented American English but is fluent in Farsi. Ahdout has a reedy intensity that makes the final events particularly sad.

Kingsley’s character, the ramrod straight Col. Behrani, is so deep into his past as an officer in the Shah’s army, the houses they lived in, and the luxury of their lifestyle then, that the past seems more vivid to him than the present. And yet to his Farsi-speaking wife and son he speaks only English. Is there any reason for this in the plot? No; the reason is that Ben Kingsley doesn’t speak Farsi and the two other actors do. Kingsley begins with this strike against him: that he neither looks like nor sounds like the character he’s supposed to be. The accent he affects sounds – what? Russian, perhaps? Certainly not particularly Iranian.

There are confusions in location and setting. The characters live in the San Francisco Bay area (Jennifer Connelly’s police boyfriend hails from the Peninsula suburb, Millbrae), yet some friends at his daughter’s wedding say they think Col. Behrani may work for Boeing, which is in Seattle. The house Behrani buys at auction, seized from Ms. Connelly’s character for her failure to pay taxes that shouldn’t have been levied in the first place, is in some coastal Neverland vaguely related to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Behrani has a doubly schizophrenic lifestyle. He actually works not of course in Seattle or for any corporation but as a highway laborer and a convenience store clerk. After this astonishingly demanding day for a 60-year-old (he must be fit!) he changes into a nice suit and drives home in an old but elegant looking Mercedes to an apartment that’s classy, but beyond his means, all to benefit his ego, justify his daughter’s good marriage match, and keep his wife happy. I’d be interested to know if there are any 60-year-old Iranians working as laborers for the California Highway Department.

Shouldn’t we wonder why Behrani’s posh fellow Iranians couldn’t have taken him into a business or gotten him a better job than highway laborer and 7-Eleven clerk?

Jennifer Connelly is a tad hard to believe as Kathy, the newly recovered, soon-to-relapse alcoholic who cleans houses (and whose own house is a wreck). Can we accept this beautiful woman, with her exquisitely shapely body, her sleek hair, and her radiant skin, as a frumpy, alcoholic housecleaner? Not after the recent transformation of Charlize Theron in Monster.

Perhaps most convincing is Ron Eldard as Lester, the police officer who befriends Kathy and abandons his own family and small children to live with her. He hasn’t a policeman’s face, but he wears the uniform convincingly, and his manner, unlike Connolly’s, is of a person who would mess up his life, as Lester quickly does.

The tragedy comes in the willfulness and stubbornness of the principals. If Connelly is foolish and neglectful, Kingsley is rigid. The cop is more nearly just wicked. He abandons a decent wife and young kids to live with a deadbeat if gorgeous woman and begins menacing a new American citizen with bogus and illegal threats of deportation.

This is the interest of the movie, but also its deep weakness as tragedy: the principals are not only seriously flawed but unworthy of real admiration, with the exception of Behrani’s wife Nadi and his son, Esmail, who become the innocent victims of the final debacle. For them, we can be truly sorry. But as has been said by critics of the movie more than once, the tragic mistake that starts the machinery of the plot rolling is so simple as to be ludicrous: the message becomes not something deep like honor thy father and mother -- but keep up with your correspondence. If Kathy had not left a pile of envelopes on the floor none of this would have happened.

The unfolding of the increasingly dire events when Connelly tries to get her house back is painful to watch. How can we sympathize with her? She drifts back into alcohol (apparently through cigarettes, then wine, then whiskey), lives in her car, and rejects all advice in repeatedly going back to her house and yelling at the new occupants. Mrs. Behrani’s uncomprehending courtesy is touching; her husband’s rigidity is irritating. The final tragic events are devastating. It’s hard not to be moved, but equally hard not to feel manipulated when the causes of it all are so trivial, and half the people have behaved so badly from the start. This tragedy has very shaky foundations.

Kingsley is a powerful actor, but when dubiously cast as here, clearly also a wooden and unsympathetic one. It was hard to understand the praise of his outrageously overplayed schtick as a sadistic English crook in Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast (2000). In House of Sand and Fog his fake accent and Iranian mask are things we can’t see through to a human being beyond. Even when in extremis, praying for his son, he never ceases to speak English. And there is just one reason for that: Ben Kingsley does not speak Farsi.

One could imagine House of Sand and Fog as an Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV horror story with Hitch coming out to say in his deadpan way, “Ladies and gentlemen, let this be a lesson to you: Open your mail!”

The movie has some power and originality. It’s a pity that it also has such irredeemable flaws.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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