'City of Joy' avoids cheap plot tricks to remain true to the struggle of life

April 17, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"City of Joy" has a slightly archaic feeling to it, as if it were based on a novel by Somerset Maugham rather than Dominique Lapierre. It's about a disillusioned young doctor finding himself in the human flotsam and jetsam of the Third World -- in th"City of Joy" has a slightly archaic feeling to it, as if it were based on a novel by Somerset Maugham rather than Dominique Lapierre. It's about a disillusioned young doctor finding himself in the human flotsam and jetsam of the Third World -- in this case the vast slum in Calcutta, India, whose ironic moniker titles the film. I kept waiting for Bette Davis to make an appearance as the fallen woman.

But like many movies about Occidentals being awakened morally and spiritually in different cultures -- ("Dances With Wolves" springs instantly to mind, followed immediately by "The Year of Living Dangerously") -- Occidentals are the least interesting characters, and their enlightenment isn't nearly so interesting as the rest of the movie, where the issue is survival.

Patrick Swayze, frisky as a jack rabbit, plays Dr. Max Lowe, a Houston surgeon, who gives up on medicine when one of his young patients dies on the operating table. He's come to realize -- or so the movie's heavy-handed opening beats into our head -- that his medical career is purely the invention of his father, another prominent doc. When Swayze does the touchy-feely routine -- how burned-out he is, how melancholy are his memories of being brutalized by his tyrant papa -- it makes you want to laugh.

But what the movie does well it does very well. Swayze, no matter how irritating, indeed makes an appropriate surgical probe into the City of Joy -- the only part of the earth that the meek have inherited. There, they struggle for survival in a seething cauldron of poverty, filth, disease and violence. It's any Third World slum, only cubed and squared, and the production gamely set up shop in the real place (director Roland Joffe, of "The Killing Fields" and "The Mission" is a stickler for reality), which helps immeasurably.

But the true hero of "City of Joy" isn't Swayze, or even the #F Scottish do-gooder Joan Bethel (played by "Shirley Valentine's" Pauline Collins) who runs a free dispensary, but, rather, Hasari Pal (Om Puri), a farmer who brings his family into the City of Joy when drought ruins him. Hasari will make you cry: He loves his wife and children desperately and he's so good-hearted and optimistic for their futures and willing to do anything to earn them that future; but, at the same time, he knows how close he is to going under.

The story is constructed in trite terms as a "web-of-fate" deal, another lame '30s stroke. Swayze's disillusioned Max has gone to Calcutta for reasons never really made clear, and one night, sated with drinking and whoring, he's beaten by thugs. Of

course, Hasari saves him and takes him to the dispensary; thus does Max become involved in both the Pal clan and Joan's shabby little beacon of hope in a slough of despondency.

Certain small mercies have been granted. Michelle Pfeiffer doesn't play Joan, but the plump and pleasant but definitely non-beautiful, regular-looking Collins. She and Swayze never become romantically involved, thank heavens.

Certain mercies have not been granted. There's a flood scene, and it's as phony as any flood scene ever made. Some of the violence is so savage -- a young girl's cheeks are sliced with razor blades -- that it makes you sick.

But these flaws aside, "City of Joy," really holds one's interest. It takes you into strange areas, too: The fulcrum of the drama turns on the neighborhood's attempts to free itself from the bondage of a tyrant calling himself "The Godfather" and extorting protection money from the people with a band of thugs.

There's something of a Graham Greene motif here, borrowed from "The Ugly American." Poor Max -- who must have seen too many "Rocky" movies -- tries to teach the poor victims to stand up for themselves; they give this novel idea a try and get seriously stomped in the process. Then he decides to run away, like any sniveling dog.

Eventually, he comes back; and this time it's heroic Hasari -- acting not out of vain glory but the deeper heroism of love and responsibility -- who stands up to the bad guys. It's never as easy as the movie makes it seem, but when Hasari finally goes one-on-one with his oppressor (Art Malik, from "Passage to India") it's deeply satisfying.

The best thing about "City of Joy" is that it's about something other than cheap epiphanies and winning by trying really hard. It's about pain; it's about suffering; it's about life.

'City of Joy'

Starring Patrick Swayze and Om Puri.

Directed by Roland Joffe.

Rated PG-13.

***

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