By Jim Slotek
As a writer, Ken Scott has shown heart in two languages – in his 2003 French-Language Seducing Doctor Lewis (directed by Jean-François Pouliot), and its English counterpart, 2013’s The Grand Seduction, directed by Don McKellar.
As a director, that heart is stretched impossibly thin in the aggressively pleasant The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir. It’s the kind of edgeless tale one can expect from a French, Indian, Belgian co-production, a French-Canadian director and a worldwide release schedule. With random elements of Bollywood, Western musicals and unlikely episodic plot contrivances, it is made to please everybody. The result is inoffensive.
Taken from Romain Puértolas’ French novel “The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an IKEA Wardrobe,” this travelogue of a story, ironically, works best when it stays in one place for a while and we start to get to know people. But its directive is to stay on the move, mostly treating characters as amiable plot devices.
The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir begins promisingly enough. Aja (Bollywood leading man Dhanush) introduces himself to some boys who’ve been sentenced to four years in a juvenile facility. Despite some initial surly resistance on their part, he proceeds to tell them a story of growing up in Mumbai as the son of a single mother (Amruta Sant).
Aja and his cousins were street con artists and pickpockets, with the added twist of Aja’s dexterity in sleight-of-hand and tricks involving levitation and “psychic surgery.” They are always on the verge of being either arrested, or killed by the gangsters whose territory they work, happily racing through the streets avoiding pursuit.
Then Aja’s mother dies suddenly, her lifelong dream of visiting Paris with her. Aja makes it his mission to deliver her ashes to the place of her dreams (armed with the discovery in her effects of his real father’s identity, a never-discussed French street-performer).
The machinery of the movie begins in Paris, where Aja and an American named Marie (Erin Moriarty) meet cute in an IKEA, spontaneously acting out the role of husband and wife with the furnishings. We have the makings of a rom-com here.
But when the penniless Aja hides in the store to sleep in a wardrobe, contrivance #1 occurs and we’re off. The wardrobe is sold and shipped to London (huh?), and Aja wakes up to find himself in a train shipping car filled with happy-go-lucky Somalian refugees seeking “the land of milk and honey.”
In London, they are greeted by an officious immigration officer (Ben Miller) who decides to ship the entire lot off Barcelona (huh?), but not before doing a musical dance number about his decision.
In Spain, the bureaucracy is incapable of deciding what to do about the refugees, so they keep them in the airport in legal limbo. Aja makes lots of new friends before fortuitously finding an open door.
The torrent of events clearly comes off as if everything that happens in the book is squeezed into 90 or so minutes. There’s an escape-by-balloon that, in a big, wide ocean, lands him on a pirate ship bound for Libya. There’s a trip to Rome (in yet another wardrobe) that lands him in the hotel room of an unhappy movie star (The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo), who finds the intruder charming. There’s a dance scene in a nightclub. There’s Paris (again), an awkward reunion with Marie, and back to Mumbai.
The pace is so antic and frenetic that the things that matter, like, say, the movie’s romantic denouement, happen literally without explanation as the movie runs out of film. Scott has a knack for comedy, as evidenced by his acclaimed sperm-donor farce Starbuck. But he is listed as a mere writing “collaborator” here, working with a multinational mutt of a script.
The heart-throb Dhanush is undeniably charming as Aja, no matter the unlikely circumstances. Unfortunately, none of the other actors, save maybe Moriarty, is onscreen long enough to make much of an impression.
The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir. Directed by Ken Scott. Starring Dhanush, Berenice Bejo, Erin Moriarty. Opens Friday, June 21 in Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver.