NEW YORK — `CITY of Joy" begins in Houston where a young doctor is operating on a little girl. The surgery doesn't succeed, and the doctor's face is filled with despair.
It's a poignant and touching situation - until the filmmaker pushes the scene about a million miles too far, making our hero lurch out of the operating room while ripping off his surgical gloves in slow motion, like a refugee from some hackneyed love scene, or maybe a shampoo commercial.
The next time we see the young physician, improbably played by Patrick Swayze, he has made his way to India on a dimly defined quest for inner enlightenment.
But wouldn't you know, there's a clinic in the section of Calcutta where his wanderings have taken him, and it desperately needs a brilliant young doctor to help its needy clients.
He refuses to get involved with the place, of course, but the spunky woman who runs it just won't let him alone. Before long he is dispensing medications to one and all and inching toward peace with his inner demons.
The movie also has an important Indian character, who has just arrived in the big city with his family, hoping for a better life. Since he is poor and uneducated, he decides to go into the rickshaw business, which means he must ingratiate himself with the local gang leader. Tensions grow as the honest rickshaw-puller tries to raise a dowry for his daughter by working extra hard. The climax involves the doctor, the entrepreneur, the mobsters, and the forces of nature in a final burst of melodrama - pushed , like everything else in the picture, about a million miles too far.
"City of Joy" was directed by Roland Joffe, a socially conscious cineaste who made a promising debut several years ago with "The Killing Fields," about the slaughter in Cambodia under Pol Pot's regime.
His career then took a wrong turn with "The Mission," a beautifully photographed but turgidly directed drama that defeated even the brilliant Robert De Niro with its ungainly dialogue. Who can forget Mr. De Niro gazing into a woman's eyes and trying to get his mouth around an awkward sentence like, "So me you do not love?"
Things are even worse when Mr. Swayze, an alumnus of "Ghost" and "Dirty Dancing," occupies the leading role. He gets helpful support from Om Puri as the rickshaw-puller and Pauline Collins as the clinic administrator; but they're no match for Mark Medoff's flatly written screenplay, based on Dominique Lapierre's novel.
True, it is refreshing to see a Hollywood movie that doesn't feel the usual obligation to tack a love angle onto the story. But since we are offered no reason why the doctor doesn't fall for the lively and likable administrator, one can't help suspecting it's because the bedraggled appearance and down-to-earth manner of Ms. Collins's character aren't glamorous enough for a hero played by an actor with Swayze's high-powered credentials.
This injects yet another false note into "City of Joy," yet another Hollywood movie that sees the problems of the third world as little more than a backdrop for brave deeds by heroic Westerners - whose language and skin color just happen to resemble those of the ticket-buying white Americans that Hollywood never loses an opportunity to flatter.