“The Kite Runner” might be the year’s best example of a well-meaning movie that doesn’t have anything significantly wrong with it — it just doesn’t have anything significantly right with it, either. I feel just as bad criticizing it as I would recommending it.
Anemically adapted by “Troy” screenwriter David Benioff from Khaled Hosseini’s bestselling novel, “The Kite Runner” was directed by Marc Forster. In tone, it falls somewhere between the two films he’s best known for: It has alarming plot elements like “Monster’s Ball,” but it’s toned down and glossed up like “Finding Neverland.” Consequently, those traumatic events barely register, either with the characters or with the viewer.
It’s an American production that was shot partially in China with dialogue mostly in Dari, a Persian dialect spoken in Afghanistan. It is in Kabul in 1978 that we meet Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) and Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada), two young boys and best friends. Amir’s father, called Baba (Homayoun Ershadi), is a wealthy politician, and Hassan is the son of their housekeeper. They are an expert kite-flying team (a popular sport among the children in their neighborhood), and Hassan — an intensely calm boy — is more than happy to be the one who fetches the kite when it falls.
Baba thinks Amir is weak and spineless; meanwhile, he dotes on the less-fortunate Hassan and his father, treating the lad like a second son. When bullies pick on Amir for having a “flat-nosed Hazara” for a friend (referring to Hassan’s ethnicity), Amir’s resentment grows. He later fails to act to prevent harm from befalling Hassan, then compounds his guilt by sabotaging his friendship with him. For all of this he cannot forgive himself.
We jump ahead 10 years. Everyone fled Kabul when the Soviets invaded in 1979; Amir (now played by Khalid Abdalla) now lives with his ailing old father in California, maintaining a booth at an open-air market while trying to become a professional writer. His ambitions aren’t taken seriously, not by his dad, and not by Taheri (Qadir Farookh), a once-powerful Afghan general that Baba wants to impress. But Taheri’s beautiful daughter Soraya (Atossa Leoni) takes Amir seriously, and they fall in love.
Eventually Amir must return to his homeland, now firmly under Taliban rule, to make amends with Hassan’s family. It is meant to be his act of redemption, but the film’s muted tone hasn’t succeeded at conveying the enormity of his guilt, so the redemption doesn’t feel as sweet as it ought to.
The children who play young Amir and Hassan are non-actors, and they give natural, unforced performances. It’s hard to say whether two boys with more acting experience could have done more to bring the characters’ complex emotions and motivations to light. I’m inclined to think yes — though there’s something to be said for the authenticity Forster got with these two.
Khalid Abdalla and Homayoun Ershadi are fine as the adult Amir and his father, with Shaun Toub giving a nice anchor performance as Rahim Kahn, a family friend who comes in and out of Amir’s life. The movie’s flaws are not large enough to make it unwatchable, or even “bad.” It’s the kind of film whose major accomplishment is to make you think, “Wow, the book is probably really good. I should have stayed home and read it.”
C+ (2 hrs., 7 min.; mostly in Dari with subtitles; )