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‘The Kite Runner’ fails to soar

Screen adaptation of best-selling novel feels leaden, melodramatic.

What are we to make of director Marc Forster? With films like “Monster’s Ball,” “Stranger than Fiction” and the little-seen “Everything Put Together,” he has shown his prowess as a maker of intelligent, mature dramas and comedies. But when he gives in to his sentimental side, we get mawkish, sappy, would-be tearjerkers like “Finding Neverland” and the new “The Kite Runner.”

Based on the best-selling novel by Khaled Hosseini, “Runner” tells the story of spoiled Afghani rich boy Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi), whose best friend and constant companion is his servant Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada). Hassan — a Hazara, while Amir and his father are Pushtun — loves to hear stories by Amir, who loves literature but lets Hassan fight his battles for him. The boys also love flying kites: Amir deftly works his kite to cut the strings of his opponents, and Hassan has a gift for knowing where the cut kite will land.

But even before the Soviets come marching into their hometown of Kabul, the boys face an ugly and violent situation that destroys their friendship — a bully whom Hassan once fended off with a slingshot (in defense of Amir) corners the servant boy in a dark alley and rapes him. Amir secretly witness the violation and says nothing, and his guilt drives a wedge between him and the now-sullen Hassan. Amir attempts to frame Hassan for stealing his watch, but even though Amir’s father Baba (Homayoun Ershadi) forgives the child, Hassan and his father leave the household. Soon after, Baba and Amir themselves must flee when the Russians invade Afghanistan.

In America, on the eve of the publication of his first novel, adult Amir (Khalid Abdalla) hears from Baba’s best friend Rahim Khan (Shaun Toub), who asks Amir to see him in Pakistan, where Rahim Khan drops a bombshell: Hassan was also Baba’s son, and Hassan and his wife have been killed by the Taliban. But Hassan left behind a son, Sohrab, who needs to be rescued.

“The Kite Runner” works best in its contrast of beautiful, 1970s Kabul and the bombed-out disaster area that bred the creation of the Taliban. But it’s hard to empathize with Amir’s plight since we lose sympathy for him so early on. (And if you haven’t read the book and don’t want to know what happens, skip to the next paragraph.) The fact that adult Amir remains so helpless against the same bully as an adult — with Sohrab having to come to his rescue, using the same slingshot his father once wielded — makes the protagonist seem that much more useless.

The sap factor runs high here, with the phrase “There is a way to be good again” popping up not once but twice. Fans of the book may be delighted to see this story writ large upon the screen, but those approaching the material cold may wonder what all the fuss is about. The pacing is lugubrious, the performances unremarkable, and the movie itself mostly disposable.