Jargon Good, Oil Bad

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“Syriana” is about big government and big business and oil deals and terrorism. It’s about spies and counter-spies and loyalty and betrayal. It’s about suicide and sacrifice and accidental death. And yet – it is one of the most interminably boring movies I have seen in ages. Even the torture scene is a disappointment (you’ll know it’s coming because the soundtrack begins an ominous pounding beat, heralding the only bit of excitement in the first half of the film). Forget what you’ve been hearing about this movie being “important” and “Oscar-worthy” and in the style of “Traffic.” The characters and locations are so scattered, the characterizations and motivations so weak, the action so lacking, that I found myself pleading, “Please! Just do something!”

Mostly these people talk. They talk in coffee shops, in lines, in cars, in offices, at parties, on boats, on TV. They speak glibly, and they use a lot of MBA jargon: “In a climate of falling prices” . . . “Let us problem-solve that for you” . . . “This merger is balance- positive.” The women talk in the stern, no-nonsense voices of agency executives, while the men whine about having to get home for Johnny’s birthday party or Susie’s soccer game when asked to work late. They talk about each other but not to each other, and they seldom call one another by name, which makes it very difficult to keep everyone straight.

Here’s an example: midway through the film a character reveals to another character who the bad guy, the villain behind the corruption, is (this is never really explained – I guess the fact that it involves an oil company is considered explanation enough). I kept trying to remember the face that belonged with the name. Was it Matt Damon? Christopher Plummer? The head of the oil company? The character is mentioned frequently but never appears on screen again. I finally had to go home and do a Google search of the cast and characters to figure out who he was. And even now, remembering him on screen, I would have to go back and watch the movie again to remember what he said or did. (Now that would be real torture.)

The biggest problem with this film is that it doesn’t tell a compelling story. In a way, that’s good; it avoids annoying stereotypes and acknowledges that there are no easy solutions or obvious villains. But the characters are so thinly drawn and so feebly connected to each other that it is difficult for the audience to create a vicarious bond. We just don’t much care. I found myself identifying with the young Arab terrorists-in-training, simply because they were the only ones who seemed to bond with each other and struggle with their decisions.

As the credits rolled I overheard the man behind me say to his companion, “I want to see that again.” She responded, “I didn’t get it either.” I’m not sure seeing it again would help all that much.

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