The first problem with Backstabbing for Beginners is its title. It sounds like the name of a bitchy Heathers-like black comedy set in a high school, replete with gossip, social-media shade, and possible bloodshed. It does not sound like a sober exposé of the United Nations Oil for Food scandal, which is what this movie (which starts at AMC Grapevine Mills this weekend) turns out to be. Of course, if a misleading title were this film’s biggest flaw, that wouldn’t be so bad, but that’s not the case.
The story is based on the book by Michael Soussan, the U.N. diplomat who blew the whistle on the scam. His fictional alter ego is Michael Sullivan (Theo James), the son of a U.S. State Department official who was murdered in Beirut in the 1980s. In 2002, he leaves his investment banking job to follow his dad’s footsteps and work for the U.N., drawing a plum assignment as special assistant to the undersecretary general (Ben Kingsley), a foul-mouthed Cypriot who runs the organization’s largest humanitarian program, selling Iraqi oil at market price in exchange for food and medicine for the country’s oppressed people. Mere hours after being hired, Michael is approached by a CIA agent (Aidan Devine) who warns him about rampant graft in Oil for Food.
This movie would be considerably better if it just removed most of Michael’s voiceover narration, which drones on at length about Iraqi politics, Michael’s family history, and the inner workings of the U.N. Even viewers who know nothing about international affairs can glean most of the important stuff from the action and dialogue, but Danish director/co-writer Per Fly doesn’t trust his audience’s intelligence that far. It certainly doesn’t help that James reads the narration in a tone that will make your eyes glaze over. The British actor may be incredibly good-looking, but he’s an inert presence here, reflecting none of the character’s idealism and striking no sparks off Turkish actress Belçim Bilgin as his love interest and secretly Kurdish interpreter who has her own agenda amid Iraq’s chaos.
Perhaps budgetary considerations prevented Fly from capturing the scale of the violence in Iraq both pre- and post-invasion, but that’s no excuse for failing to inject the script with any note of humor to change up the mood. Nor does it explain why Michael, having been screwed over once by his boss already, decides to trust the man again after the invasion, thinking that even a corrupt Oil for Food might be the instrument to rebuild the country. The way Michael finally gains leverage over his boss is pretty flat, too. Like the rest of the movie, it’s done up with much less excitement than you’d expect from a title like Backstabbing for Beginners.
Backstabbing for Beginners
Starring Theo James and Ben Kingsley. Directed by Per Fly. Written by Per Fly and Daniel Pyne, based on Michael Soussan’s book. Rated R.