You know a film is in trouble when, while listening to the DVD commentary track, the director admits he hasn’t got a clue what the title means. That’s exactly what director Stephen Frears admits on the commentary track of the DVD for Dirty Pretty Things, an oddly overpraised film from 2003. Why it was so overpraised I can only surmise as critics being tired of the same old Hollywood pap that passes for thrillers. I say this because DPT is ostensibly a thriller, except that it’s not. In short, it’s a muddle of a film about a Nigerian political refugee and doctor named Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in London who’s running from a false charge of murdering his wife in his homeland. He takes several odd jobs- cab driving in the daylight and hotel front desk receptionist at night.
Then, he makes a grisly discovery straight out of Urban Legends 101- the head of the hotel’s bellmen, Señor Juan (Sergi López), is running an organ transplant ring for illegal immigrants, who exchange kidneys for fake ID documents. A toilet stuffed with a human heart clues him in. That anyone smart enough to organize and succeed with such a ring would be dumb enough to try to flush a human heart is merely the first in a series of unbelievable plot twists. The villain, Juan, is so over the top in his scenery chewing villainy that the film quickly becomes a comic book. Of course, there has to be a love interest in a comic book, and Okwe is living with a maid at the hotel, an illegal from Turkey named Senay (Audrey Tautou). Tautou, so wonderful in Amelie, is miscast here as a Turk. Yes, she’s fascinating and sexy to watch, but her character has no real purpose save to show that Okwe is a sensitive man- a point the rest of the film makes. Eventually she loses her virginity to Juan, who blackmails her for sex and money in exchange for a visa do she can live with relatives in New York. In retaliation, she and Okwe drug him before he can steak her organs, and end up taking Juan’s organs, with the help of another stereotype- a hooker with a heart of gold named Juliette (Sophie Okonedo).
The screenplay is a mess, at times trying to be ‘realistic’, a social screed, a thriller, and a love story, with none of them meshing with the others. At film’s end Senay and Okwe part at the airport, but there is no love scene, no payoff, and I suppose that the writers thought this would be ‘realistic’, but given that the rest of the film is so unrealistic, it only heightens the film’s poor nature. Ejiofor and Tautou do as much as they can with what little they’re given, but the film’s a total ‘So what?’
The screenplay is so poorly written that you can see events coming many minutes before they happen- such as Okwe and Senay’s turning the tables on Juan, or knowing Senay will bite the dick off her sweatshop supervisor after the first time he forces her to fellate him to avoid immigration officials. Which points up another pointless plot device- two bumbling immigration officials. first, they harass Senay at her apartment, thinking that they will catch her with an illegal boarder (why this is illegal is never explained), then they try to catch her working at the hotel (also illegal- although why they would not want immigrants to contribute to society nor support themselves is a mystery), and then at the sweatshop, yet if they know where she lives it would be easy to just follow her and catch her working- no?
Another unrealistic plot contrivance is that Okwe has a pal Gou Yi (Benedict Wong) who works in the London morgue, which conveniently allows him access to a plethora of drugs he needs throughout the film. This is the character’s only purpose in the film- thus a mere contrivance. These and many other shortfallings in the film are due to the poor screenplay by Steven Knight. No cliché, coincidence, nor contrivance is too banal, forced, nor precious in this script. Frears, as director, should have tidied things up a bit. A similar tale he directed- The Grifters- was a much better piece because of its screenplay, giving proof to the maxim that films always succeed or fail on the strength of their story, not the directorial flourishes.
As for Tautou- she is one of those oddly attractive actresses that you cannot help but look at. But, her character is not for a moment believable as a Turk nor Moslem. Her reasons for immigrating seem shallow- she’s not a political refugee, her ‘faith’ is but a contrivance so we can see her abused by her sweatshop boss & then Juan, her cultural references seem shallow- such as her chewing on plants that stimulate, and her accent is phony. As for Ejiofor- his character is a typical Good Negro role that would have starred Sidney Poitier a few decades back. His actions have little justification, save as crusader, yet given his tenable position, it seems silly that he would risk all to save total strangers- even Senay, if we accept that he wants to boink her. The revelation of his being wanted for murdering his wife, although false, also seems forced for no reason. It would have been better just to have a regular hotel clerk find the heart and lead into an adventure. As silly as that would be it would at least be grounded in reality. DPT, as it is, is just a lark- but one with no uplift.
Why, as example, doesn’t Okwe just anonymously tip off the cops? Why would Senay need her passport to America to say she’s from Italy? She’d still be an illegal- no? And, finally, if one were gonna base a thriller about a hotel clerk finding a human heart in a toilet couldn’t there be a far better explanation for how it got there? Although not a great film I thought of Roman Polanski’s film from the mid-80s, Frantic, where Harrison Ford is cast as a man whose wife is suddenly kidnapped in France. He goes through many travails but they are all believable and he is far from the super-hero characters he’s made a career out of. The difference in the two films is that Frantic was well-written, and directed by a man with vision, not just a typical hack.
As for the DVD, there is not much in the way of extras, but the film is in good visual and aural shape. As for the commentary, the only notable thing revealed is how clueless Frears was about his own movie. Then, again, I guess it is refreshing for an artist to actually ‘fess up to his failures. Now, if we can only get Steven Spielberg to do DVD commentaries!