I saw The Constant Gardener last night and walked away unmoved.

Do I sympathize with the storyteller’s passion to expose the cover-ups of corporations, and to speak the truth about the exploitation of the vulnerable in Africa? I have little doubt that this kind of corruption is a reality. And it makes me sick just thinking about it. There’s probably a great film about this just waiting to be made. If someone made that film, I’d be shouting about it from the rooftops.

This isn’t that movie.

When you heavy-handedly preach about corruption through art, it ceases to be art and becomes propaganda. Propaganda is usually well received by those who already agree with it but it rarely persuades anyone to believe othewise. In The Constant Gardener, important messages are interwoven through a long list of preposterous events that could only happen in a Hollywood movie. And that’s too bad.

Problem #1 — The romance of Diplomat Quayle and Tessa. Okay, he delivers a dull lecture… he’s attacked by one of the students listening to him, Tessa… and five minutes later, he and that student are rolling around in bed.

And we’re supposed to find this romantic? We’re supposed to respect these people? We’re supposed to see them as individuals of integrity? Give me a break! Right off the bat, I wouldn’t trust these two with an international investigation any farther than I can throw them.

And then, right away, they’re married! How did that happen?

Wait a minute. This movie wants my heart to break for Africa before it’s over? If so, it’s got to stop distracting us with Diplomat Quayle’s tormented flashbacks about flirting with pretty, pregnant Tessa in the bathtub. Our heart shouldn’t be breaking because gorgeous Rachel Weisz was betrayed. It should be breaking for Africa. Instead, we get Tessa switching back and forth between sexy mode and zealous Michael Moore-mode, something that keeps the focus on her instead of the crisis.

Problem #2: How Hollywood is this movie? When Diplomat Quayle needs top-secret information, just in time he stumbles onto The Kid Who Can Hack Into Anything.

Problem #3: There are moments that happen far too conveniently. Quayle seems to stumble onto everything he needs, right when he needs it, all along the way. And bad guys have a tendency of showing up in person far too conveniently as well, as if they’re all in a van following him around, waiting to step out whenever necessary.

I had lost any ability to believe what was happening by the time Quayle jumps off a plane in an African settlement, tracks down an eccentric doctor, and mild-manneredly gets this guy to spill his guts about corruption and confess to his role in a crime in just a matter of moments… while, at the same time, murderous bandits suddenly arrive to destroy the camp! This guy’s timing is unbelievable!


Problem #4: The conclusion pulls a familiar file from the Thriller Conclusion box–embarrass the bad guy in front of a big crowd. This particular conclusion is usually quite dramatic, but also hard to believe. Here, it felt just as contrived as the conclusion of Minority Report.

(In fact, you could do an in-depth comparison of Minority Report and find a lot of parallels, I think… from the dead wife right down to the flawed, doomed hero who goes on the run from agents sent to kill him, even as he tries to uncover the truth.)

Having just seen Serenity, I can’t help but note that the Hero of the Moment seems to be the one who slowly wakes up to the government’s corruption, resists getting involved because of the hassle, but then is persuaded to track down the evidence, and finally risks his life to get that evidence broadcast to the rest of the world, to expose and bring down the tyrant and his lies. These stories operate on the assumption that a world of evils can be traced to an easily-exposed lie, and if that lie is just brought into the light by a noble investigative reporter, things can be fixed. A nice idea, but unrealistic.

It also pivots on the exchange, “Do you believe you can redeem yourself for your sins?” “Yes, I do.” Again, a nice idea. But it doesn’t work. We know, on some level, that human beings, no matter how gushingly their hearts bleed for one another, can’t save the world on their own strength. They need to appeal to a Higher Power. And no one in The Constant Gardener ever looks up.

I must, however, note that Fernando Mereilles is an immensely talented director who has a formidable command of style and editing. Ralph Fiennes is fine, and Rachel Weisz is radiant as always. So the film does have its strong points.

It’s just guilty of many of the same faults that mucked up the seemingly “un-muckable” premise of In My Country. (How is it that a film about the South African Reconciliation Hearings sent me away more bewildered by the sight of Samuel Jackson and Juliet Binoche having sex than burdened by the weight of what happened there?!) If your story is about a massive, historic crisis, don’t dilute the material with something as trivial as a shallow love story.

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