'Backstabbing for Beginners': Film Review

An inert would-be thriller.

Theo James and Ben Kingsley star in Per Fly's thriller inspired by the United Nations' scandal-ridden "Oil for Food" program.

Backstabbing for Beginners is ostensibly a thriller about the corruption and intrigue surrounding the Saddam Hussein-era "Oil for Food" program sponsored by the United Nations. But the most thrilling aspect of director Per Fly's film is watching the interactions between co-stars Theo James and Ben Kingsley. Even as James sucks all the energy out of the room with his inert performance, Kingsley creates oxygen with his dynamic, wildly entertaining turn. Hearing the veteran performer find endlessly different ways to spew F-bombs makes you wonder why he's never been in a Quentin Tarantino movie.

Based on the memoir by Michael Soussan, the real-life U.N. official who exposed the scam, the 2003-set drama centers around his fictional counterpart Michael Sullivan (James), a 24-year-old investment banker who throws his financial career away in favor of following in his late father's steps as a diplomat. Michael procures a job at the U.N., where he goes to work for the colorful Cypriot diplomat Pasha (Kingsley), whose less than total dedication to honesty becomes evident when he tells his young protégé, "The first rule of diplomacy, kid, is that truth is not a matter of fact. It's a matter of consensus."

Pasha is in charge of the program designed to provide humanitarian aid to the Iraqi people from the proceeds of Iraq's oil sales. It doesn't take long for the idealistic Michael — who tells everyone who'll listen, "I want to make a difference" — to realize that the program is riddled with graft and corruption. Further adding to the intrigue is the fact that his predecessor in the job died under mysterious circumstances and an attempt to recruit Michael by a CIA agent (Aidan Devine) looking for inside information.

Michael soon heads to Iraq, where he meets Nashim (Belcim Bilgin), a beautiful translator who keeps her Kurdish identity a secret and refers to Saddam Hussein as "the Angel of Death." They inevitably begin a romance which only fuels Michael's desire to get at the truth.

Featuring loads of expository voiceover narration by James' character that only serve to slow the narrative to a crawl, Backstabbing for Beginners belies its punchy title with its somnolent pacing. The film might have worked if it had a charismatic lead, but the bland James never succeeds in making his character's moral plight compelling. Fortunately, Kingsley more than takes up the slack playing the sort of boss who calls a meeting to order by violently banging his shoe on the table. The seemingly ageless Jacqueline Bisset also enlivens the proceedings with her strong turn as Pasha's steely rival at the U.N.

There's certainly a compelling film to be made from the subject, but Danish director Fly (The Inheritance) and his co-screenwriter Daniel Pyne (The Manchurian Candidate remake) try so hard to infuse the real-life tale with conventional thriller tropes that it ironically has the effect of deadening the suspense. It's telling that the most arresting footage in the pic is the news clips from the era, such as George W. Bush announcing the invasion of Iraq that started the Iraq War. This is the sort of melodramatic narrative film that makes you long for the sober reality of a documentary.

Production companies: Creative Alliance, Eyeworks Scandi Fiction, Hoylake Capital, Parts and Labor, Scythia Films, Waterstone Entertainment
Distributor: A24
Cast: Theo James, Ben Kingsley, Belcim Bilgin, Jacqueline Bisset, Rossif Sutherland, Rachel Wilson, Brian Markinson
Director: Per Fly
Screenwriters: Per Fly, Daniel Pyne
Producers: Lars Knudsen, Nikolaj Vibe Michelsen, Daniel Bekerman, Malene Blenkov
Executive producers: Gregory P. Shockro, Robert Odgen Barnum, Peter Abrahams, Mark Gingras, Ethan Lazar, Andrew Corkin, Jeff Kalligheri, Stephen Bowen, Ole Christen Madsen
Director of photography: Brendan Steacy
Production designer: Niels Sejer
Editor: Susan Shipton, Morton Giese, Janus Billeskov Jansen, Hans Moller
Composer: John Buchan
Costume designer: Todor Kobakov
Casting: Jason Knight

Rated R, 108 minutes