His latest, Dirty Pretty Things, attempts to address a more ripped-from-the-headlines reality while returning to his interest in Great Britain's dispossessed. But his bid for topicality also gives his film a flat-footed, mainstream quality that lacks the warm embrace of human flaws and gifts Frears has offered in the past.
The concept of Dirty Pretty Things is promising. An underground group of impoverished London immigrants is selling their kidneys for cash and passports.
In a patently ludicrous setup, noble African immigrant Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a front desk clerk at the seedy Baltic Hotel, discovers the organs-for-sale scheme when he finds a human heart jamming one of the hotel toilets in the illin'est commode scene since Trainspotting.
It's unclear why -- in a black market where kidneys are sold -- a heart sets the drama in motion. Frears undoubtedly sees a sewage line clogged with a heart as far more cinematic than one jammed with a lowly kidney.
The morally upright Okwe was a doctor in Lagos but now works as a desk clerk and taxi driver. Though advised by a friend to forget he ever found the heart, Okwe is the kind of defiant, moral character who can't easily turn his back on the matter. Though Okwe's oft-stated morality often gets in the way of our identification with his character, Frears' casting of a black actor in the lead role is nothing short of subversive. Despite the film's many flaws, that casting decision shows that Frears' heart is in the right place, even if his storytelling judgment is far from sound.
Okwe's efforts to get to the bottom of the organ trade biz neatly dovetails with the decision of his love interest, Turkish immigrant Senay (Audrey Tautou), to trade her kidney for a passport to New York. Bowing to the forward momentum-at-any-cost absurdities of the Hollywood thriller, Okwe must race to Senay's bedside to hopefully prevent her imminent kidney harvesting.
Dirty Pretty Things unfortunately expends too much energy on its thriller machinations and fails to create the kind of oppressive atmosphere that would help intensify Frears' message of a world that offers its immigrants little sympathy.
Frears clearly has something profound to say about the much-heralded global economy that has rendered vast numbers of workers into invisible, exploitable drones. "We are the people you don't see," Okwe didactically chides a black market bigwig as he baldly delivers the film's message.
Tautou, who was so effervescently scrumptious in pixie mode in Amelie, fizzles in bedraggled immigrant mode. Her Turkish virgin, who clings desperately to her reputation while ravenous with desire to get to America, is a schizophrenic creation. She's pious and outlandish, moony for Okwe, but never quite convincing in her infatuation. Frears' secondary characters are even more simpleminded. The film's villains, such as organ-selling hotel manager "Sneaky" (Sergi Lopez), tend to advertise their malevolence via obesity, greasy hair and belly-grazing gold chains, which make the good guys a chorus of angels by comparison.
Dirty Pretty Things unfortunately uses its plot about the black market trade in human organs the same way Hollywood films use asteroids hurtling toward Earth to propel their pedestrian stories. Frears has a leftier concern with his immigrant characters, but that obvious empathy can't save a weak script and a story that betrays its disappointing allegiance to Hollywood formula.