Generation Gap

My Son the Fanatic is a nuanced take on Pakistani-English family values. Romance saves Tarzan from its overrefined apes.

The screenwriter and novelist Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette, 1985) has a yen for ambivalence, for situations in which no character has a monopoly on either rightness or wrongness. The characters are all right. Or, rather, they’re all wrong. No, they aren’t: Right and wrong don’t comfortably apply. They try to act as if they’re right but suggest by their behavior that they might well be wrong–akin to a person who turns one way at an intersection and then keeps glancing anxiously at the rearview mirror. To be human is to be pulled in different directions; the least trustworthy people are the ones who seem most certain.

This theorem applies especially to My Son the Fanatic, directed by Udayan Prasad from a superbly wry screenplay by Kureishi (based on his short story). Its central character–the “my” of the title–is Parvez (Om Puri), a Pakistani cab driver in a bleak industrial city in the north of England. The genial Parvez wants nothing more than to make it as an Englishman, to the point of enduring a steady patter of racist humiliations and drifting into a second career as a panderer. Nevertheless, he tells himself that his life has a kind of integrity.

His grown son, Farid (Akbar Kurtha), doesn’t see it that way. The angry young man dumps his Anglo-Saxon fiancee and falls in with a group of Islamic fundamentalists, some of whom he houses under his father’s modest roof. At home, poor Parvez is reviled for the decadent culture that he embodies; at work, he’s treated as a pet, a “little man,” by the German businessman (Stellan Skarsgard) whom he supplies with prostitutes. Parvez has no status in either Western or Islamic culture. In his den, he pours himself a glass of single-malt Scotch and listens to Fats Waller and tries to avoid the incinerating glares of his increasingly traditional wife (Gopi Desai) and the fervent prayers of his son. And he finds himself falling in love with Bettina (Rachel Griffiths), an English prostitute whose compromised purity seems to mirror his own.

My Son the Fanatic is built on incongruities–on the juxtaposition of fierce Islamic piety and amiable Western dissolution. The tensions give it a comic tingle, but that comedy is rooted in melancholy and alienation. The mix of tones is marvelously embodied in Om Puri, a charismatic, slightly ravaged star of Indian cinema. Puri’s Parvez begins with a magnetic confidence in his own foolishness: He’s proud of how he grasps for status. In the movie’s prologue, he can hardly contain his delight that his son is set to marry the daughter of the local chief inspector, a man whose revulsion for this dark-skinned taxi driver with his cheap camera is manifest in every frozen half-smile. Kureishi could have spun a whole film (and a more commercial one) out of this Birdcage opening, but he has already mined that vein in his hilarious novel The Buddha of Suburbia (1990). When Parvez tells his German patron that he holds himself above his fellow drivers–“Sir, I just joke with them. A gentleman is my goal.”–the tension between how he regards himself and how the world regards him is heartbreaking. He’s in for the comeuppance of his life.

But if the father’s way is wrong, the son’s way is dangerously out of touch: It condemns before it understands. After all, both Parvez and the call girl Bettina are playing by capitalism’s rules, trying to get a foothold in a society that closely guards access to its more “proper” ladders to the top. That means that Farid’s moral absolutisms–and the fundamentalists’ picketing and firebombing of the whorehouse–aren’t so much wrong as entirely beside the point. Nowhere is this more evident than in Griffith’s lovely and self-possessed performance, which transcends every hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold cliché. What she does and what she is have no connection; she does what she does to get by. The affection between her and Parvez comes from the happy realization that in spite of their differences, they’re on the same (bush league) team–and each has figured out what the other is truly worth.

My Son the Fanatic isn’t entirely pure in its motives. Parvez’s wife remains a remote and unsympathetic figure, a woman whose lack of appreciation fully justifies his drift into the arms of another lover. The theme has been much on Kureishi’s mind. His most recent novel, Intimacy, is a nakedly autobiographical exploration of a man’s thoughts on the eve of his abandonment of his wife and two small sons for a younger woman. The breadth of Kureishi’s self-justification in Intimacy is fairly breathtaking; he really does need more characters, more checks on the central character’s point of view. Kureishi is much more convincing as a dramatist than as a monologist.

Still, My Son the Fanatic isn’t an easy sell: Miramax picked it up for U.S. distribution and sat on it for a couple of years, reportedly debating whether to alter its irresolute ending. It’s shocking that the company would even consider such a change, since the film’s irresolution is its greatest strength. Kureishi’s hopelessness is the kind that leaves you exhilarated, convinced that even if the characters on screen haven’t found a “right” way, the quest for a right way is what keeps them–keeps all of us–alive. The punk aesthetic lingers in Kureishi: The more hopeless the movie gets, the more upbeat it feels.

C ritics of all persuasions have been beating their breasts and warbling for Disney’s new Tarzan cartoon. They’re half-right: The movie is a collision between inspiration and tastelessness, between the defiantly quirky and the wholesomely homogenized. I hated it in principle–I hate most modern Disney cartoons–but adored a good deal of it in practice. The storyboarding frequently borders on genius, and few cartoon characters have had the gorgeously dizzy aplomb of Minnie Driver’s Jane.

The noxious first. There’s something really icky about the way the gorillas talk. I know, animals have spoken English in cartoons since cartoons began to speak, but Tarzan is the first time they’ve done it in a story in which language is a central theme. The daft charm of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ protagonist–a little boy raised by gorillas whose animal and human languages are constantly vying for supremacy–doesn’t have the same piquancy when the gorillas talk like characters from Leave It to Beaver. If we’re all the same under the skin (or fur), then what’s the point of the story? Glenn Close’s tender mama gorilla has clearly been to finishing school; Lance Henriksen’s massive patriarch must have learned to talk from watching after-school specials: “I said he could stay,” he grits, after baby Tarzan gets adopted by his missus, “That doesn’t make him my son.” Gorilla comic relief comes from Rosie O’Donnell as Tarzan’s pal. I’d have welcomed her self-congratulatory sarcasm in Instinct, but here it made my back hair stand up. You can pretty much ignore Rosie, Glenn, and Lance, but it’s impossible to shut your ears to Phil–Collins, that is, whose songs feature Afro-Celtic polyrhythms over soft-rock sludge.

All is forgiven when Tarzan (the voice of Tony Goldwyn) meets Minnie Driver–I mean, Jane. When he scoops her up to elude some angry baboons, the sequence is more electrifying, more dizzyingly vertiginous than anything in Jurassic Park: The Lost World (1997). It gets better when they stop to chat. He’s a likable schnook with a long, skinny chin and a slightly embarrassed lope. She’s all blithe insouciance–a wonderful parody of proper English maidenhood straining to burst its corsets and grab a piece of jungle hunk. What a voice Driver has! Breathlessly throaty–it only just manages to contain its own melodic exuberance.